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Hillary Clinton looks on as Bernie Sanders speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (Photo: John Locher, AP)

The Missing Clinton-Sanders Debate: California Dreaming?

Tom Gallagher

In opting out of the last of her previously agreed upon debates with Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton returned to campaign-long theme – her inevitability.  And entitlement.   Her supporters told us from the start that Clinton was entitled to the nomination because party leaders had decided.  And her nomination was inevitable because party leaders had decided – as her immediate and continuing domination of the superdelegate count showed.

That Clinton really shouldn’t have to worry about Sanders at all, because she should be concentrating on Trump, has also been a continual part of the Clinton argument: She’s gonna win; Sanders can only make her look bad.  

Debates happened, nonetheless, allowing Sanders to upend the standard discussion.  America found out that you could forego the billionaires’ bucks and still out-fund raise the “inevitable” candidate with millions of contributions averaging $27.  Sanders introduced the ideas of democratic socialism into the American mainstream – and then demonstrated a massive following for them.  Doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour was put on the table as Sanders hammered on the theme that no one who works full time should be poor.  Medicare-for-all was back on center stage.  

Now, however, Hillary Clinton has publicly declared that, "I will be the nominee for my party," so there will be no last debate before the final six state contests on June 7 (the District of Columbia follows on June 14).  We are left wondering, then, what ideas might have come to the fore in the debate that never was.  

Something they might have debated

Given that the June 7 roster includes California, home to the biggest primary of them all, Sanders would have likely invoked the California Dream in arguing his long-standing proposal for free public higher education.  Strangely, in the past, Clinton has opted to make this proposal a bone of contention.  She reasonably enough argues the practical political difficulties of achieving this goal, if only because of all of the Republican governors and legislatures out there.  But even if we could do it, she says we shouldn’t, because, “I'm not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump's kids.”  

There’s a bit of democratic socialist theory that Clinton might benefit from here: In Sweden, for instance, income differences are often intentionally ignored in the interest of creating public institutions seen as “good enough for everyone.”  If they are welcoming to poor, middle class and rich alike, there will be great pressure for them to be high quality and they will be less vulnerable when the next fiscal crisis comes.

But we don’t have to cross the Atlantic to find the most relevant instance of that ideal.  Parents and grandparents of today’s debt-ridden students actually attended a California higher ed system that did what Sanders advocates.  The 1868 act founding the University of California declared that “tuition shall be free to all residents of the state.”   Arguably the finest public system in the country, in addition to educating California’s workforce, the university produced research central to the state’s agricultural and industrial economies.  As one writer put it, “It was where the establishment sent its children out of choice, and where the rising middle class sent its children to be educated for free.”  

The free tuition principle, which came to include state and community college systems, went largely unchallenged for a hundred years until Governor Ronald Reagan began undoing it as part of his plan to fix “that mess in Berkeley,” the bete noire central to his rise to power in 1966.  Today the system derives more revenue from student tuition and fees than it does from state support.  It makes no pretense at keeping up with the state’s growing higher education demand and the percentage of college students enrolled in for-profit institutions steadily rises.

In conclusion, Sanders might reasonably have argued in the missing debate, we know tuition-free public higher education can happen in California, because it did happen in California -- and with an aroused public and a change in Washington, it could happen nationwide.  Given, too, that the “political revolution” Bernie Sanders calls for is fundamentally about undoing the “Reagan revolution” that followed his 1980 election to the presidency, the tuition-free question carries a unique national/state resonance in California.  Really, do Clinton or her supporters actually not think the fight to return tuition-free higher education to the state is worth making? 

Something Sanders might have asked

Would Sanders have asked Clinton one last time to release the transcripts of her highly paid Goldman Sachs speeches?  After all, she said she’d do it when everyone in the race agreed to release the contents of their paid speeches – and she’s the only one left.  

Something the press might have asked

Might a panelist have asked Clinton have her campaign’s assertion that she would be the strongest nominee jives with the months of polling that has consistently shown Sanders running better against Trump than she does?  Is the argument just that Sanders’s popularity will inevitably decline under Republican onslaught, while hers has already bottomed out?  Or is there something more?  

We’ll never know.


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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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