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South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks to guests during a campaign stop at Cronk's restaurant on November 26, 2019 in Denison, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Progressives Condemn 'Nonsensical and Dishonest' Pete Buttigieg Ad Attacking Free Public College

"This is such a disingenuous attack that can be used for literally any universal program."

Jake Johnson

The Democratic presidential campaign of South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg on Thursday launched a new ad in Iowa attacking the idea of tuition-free public college, sparking backlash from progressives who called Buttigieg's argument against the proposal "disingenuous" and reactionary.

"I believe we should move to make college affordable for everybody. There are some voices saying, 'Well that doesn't count unless you go even further, unless it's free even for the kids of millionaires,'" Buttigieg says in the 30-second spot, a clear shot at Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who are both campaigning on making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

"But I only want to make promises that we can keep," Buttigieg says in the ad, which aired Thursday evening in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "Look, what I'm proposing is plenty bold. I mean these are big ideas. We can gather the majority to drive those big ideas through without turning off half the country before we even get into office."

Unlike Sanders and Warren's plans, which would make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all, Buttigieg's proposal (pdf) would make public college education tuition-free only for households earning up to $100,000 per year.

Progressives were quick to respond that Buttigieg's argument against tuition-free public college and in favor of means-testing could just as easily apply to other publicly funded goods and programs like K-12 education, Social Security, Medicare, and libraries.

"This logic leads directly to President Pete agreeing to further Medicare and Social Security means testing in order to keep taxes low," said Crooked Media's Brian Beutler.

Other critics echoed Beutler:

Faiz Shakir, Sanders' campaign manager, said "to have an advanced society that lifts the working class, you need universal benefits paid for through progressive taxation."

"Why does Pete dislike Social Security, Medicare, public parks, libraries, fire stations, etc.?" Shakir added.

Current Affairs editor Sparky Abraham, the author of an April article that addressed common attacks on free public college, also slammed Buttigieg's new ad.

"This is a nonsensical and dishonest line for a lot of reasons, but especially notice what the result is: burdens land on poor people to prove they're poor, and colleges don't lose market share or profit to public competitors," said Abraham. "This is pure profit protection at your expense."

In a series of tweets late Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called Buttigieg's attack on tuition-free public college "a GOP talking point used to dismantle public systems" and said "it's sad to see a Dem candidate adopt it."

"Universal public systems are designed to benefit EVERYBODY! Everyone contributes and everyone enjoys. We don't ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or libraries because they are public goods," said the New York Democrat. "Universal systems that benefit everyone are stronger because everyone's invested!"


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