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SLATE: ET TU, MEGADONOR?

July 11, 2023

Alexander Sammon

President Joe Biden’s student debt relief proposal is very popular; roughly 3 in 5 Americans support it. The Supreme Court is very unpopular; according to one new survey, only 3 in 10 registered voters approve of it.

So the court’s decision to kill Biden’s student debt relief policy—and take between $10,000 and $20,000 out of the pockets of needy Americans—could mean electoral gains for Democrats. To that end, the liberal nonprofit group Protect Borrowers Action last week announced a $2 million ad campaign targeting House Republicans in battleground districts who signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Biden’s program. Many of those House Republicans also voted to dismantle Biden’s plan earlier this year.

But there was one notable non-Republican group that joined those Republicans in petitioning the court to strike down Biden’s proposal: Protect Democracy, a “non-partisan” legal group cofounded by Ian Bassin, Justin Florence, and Emily Loeb, all alums of the Obama administration.

President Joe Biden’s student debt relief proposal is very popular; roughly 3 in 5 Americans support it. The Supreme Court is very unpopular; according to one new survey, only 3 in 10 registered voters approve of it.

So the court’s decision to kill Biden’s student debt relief policy—and take between $10,000 and $20,000 out of the pockets of needy Americans—could mean electoral gains for Democrats. To that end, the liberal nonprofit group Protect Borrowers Action last week announced a $2 million ad campaign targeting House Republicans in battleground districts who signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Biden’s program. Many of those House Republicans also voted to dismantle Biden’s plan earlier this year.

But there was one notable non-Republican group that joined those Republicans in petitioning the court to strike down Biden’s proposal: Protect Democracy, a “non-partisan” legal group cofounded by Ian Bassin, Justin Florence, and Emily Loeb, all alums of the Obama administration.

 

Protect Democracy, which claims to “prevent our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government,” filed an amicus curiae brief to the court to bolster the extremely rickety case that the court used to justify its decision.

“It is important to recognize that both student debt and the pandemic have disproportionately harmed lower income and minority communities,” the brief read. “But the answer to these problems is not the unchecked aggrandizement of executive power.” The message, essentially, was that the organization didn’t like that Biden was trying to pass student debt relief through executive action.

It’s not an uncommon argument, though it’s strange coming from Obama alums. It’s stranger still given that Protect Democracy has one really notable funder: Democratic megadonor and top Biden backer Reid Hoffman.

President Joe Biden’s student debt relief proposal is very popular; roughly 3 in 5 Americans support it. The Supreme Court is very unpopular; according to one new survey, only 3 in 10 registered voters approve of it.

So the court’s decision to kill Biden’s student debt relief policy—and take between $10,000 and $20,000 out of the pockets of needy Americans—could mean electoral gains for Democrats. To that end, the liberal nonprofit group Protect Borrowers Action last week announced a $2 million ad campaign targeting House Republicans in battleground districts who signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Biden’s program. Many of those House Republicans also voted to dismantle Biden’s plan earlier this year.

But there was one notable non-Republican group that joined those Republicans in petitioning the court to strike down Biden’s proposal: Protect Democracy, a “non-partisan” legal group cofounded by Ian Bassin, Justin Florence, and Emily Loeb, all alums of the Obama administration.

 

Protect Democracy, which claims to “prevent our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government,” filed an amicus curiae brief to the court to bolster the extremely rickety case that the court used to justify its decision.

“It is important to recognize that both student debt and the pandemic have disproportionately harmed lower income and minority communities,” the brief read. “But the answer to these problems is not the unchecked aggrandizement of executive power.” The message, essentially, was that the organization didn’t like that Biden was trying to pass student debt relief through executive action.

It’s not an uncommon argument, though it’s strange coming from Obama alums. It’s stranger still given that Protect Democracy has one really notable funder: Democratic megadonor and top Biden backer Reid Hoffman.

During the Biden years, Hoffman has positioned himself as the centrist fundraiser of the centrist president’s tenure. A co-founder of LinkedIn, Hoffman poured $8.6 million into the 2022 midterms, making him one of the very top individual Democratic donors of the election cycle.

He also positioned himself as a close ally and booster of Biden. In 2021 Hoffman hosted a virtual fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, where tickets went up to $875,000 a pop. Biden later thanked Hoffman personally for his “generous support” during the event, according to a transcript of the president’s remarks.

In 2020 Hoffman was an active bundler for Biden’s presidential campaign, raising money on his behalf, while also putting millions of dollars into super PACs backing Biden’s candidacy for the White House. According to Fortune, Hoffman spent $7 million on pro-Biden super PACs and ads opposing Trump. Hoffman even founded Mainstream Democrats PAC, a super PAC to elevate moderate Democrats like, you guessed it, Joe Biden.

Already, Hoffman has announced that he will host fundraising events for the president’s bid for 2024. “They know they can rely on us,” a Hoffman adviser said of the White House, to CNBC.

There’s something of a pattern here, one that freights that statement with irony. Throughout the Biden presidency, the famously moderate president has had his ambitions thwarted over and over by none other than his fellow centrists. From the original Build Back Better Act (which a small group of House moderates worked to sabotage) to the minimum wage hike in the American Rescue Plan Act (which was knocked out by centrists in the Senate), Biden has found some of his greatest opposition from his very own. Both of those failed proposals were, at various times, considered Biden’s potential “signature” accomplishment, much as student loan debt cancellation later assumed that mantle.

And it’s not the first time that Hoffman’s funding has worked counter to Biden’s legislative vision.

In 2022 much of Hoffman’s spending via Mainstream Democrats PAC went toward opposing progressive Democrats in primaries. That money ended up going to conservative House Democrats who had opposed and undermined Biden on signature issues. The group successfully went in huge for Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, who opposed Biden’s gun control legislation and continues to oppose him on guns. Cuellar also opposed—and continues to oppose—the president on the all-important issue of abortion rights.

 

Hoffman’s super PAC spending helped Cuellar eke out a narrow victory in a bitter primary race.

A similar dynamic played out in Oregon’s 5th District, where the Mainstream Democrats PAC spent on behalf of conservative Democrat Kurt Schrader, who went to great lengths to undermine Biden’s Build Back Better bill, and worked to sabotage Biden’s popular drug pricing reform in particular. Schrader lost in the primary; his opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, lost in the general, after Schrader refused to endorse his fellow Democrat.

In fact, a major percentage of Hoffman’s political spending in 2022 was only in the primaries; by late April his top adviser, Dmitri Mehlhorn, told the New York Times that putting money toward House Democrats was a lost cause, that a midterm wipeout was “baked in,” and that the best thing to do was to try to look to elections in the future.

Biden, by then left for dead by many of the party’s usual megadonors, made a handful of decisions that helped win a historic Democratic overperformance in November. He embraced abortion rights after Roe v. Wade was overturned, in a much more fulsome way than ever before. He passed a major party-line spending bill in the Inflation Reduction Act. And, critically, he announced that he would be canceling student loan debt by executive order.

To be sure, the Supreme Court needed little encouragement to strike down Biden’s signature student debt relief proposal. But Chief Justice John Roberts did go out of his way to cite Democrats in his decision to strike down the policy; Nancy Pelosi is mentioned by name in a footnote to the majority opinion. (She previously said that Biden did not have the authority to cancel student debt.) It’s not Hoffman’s or Protect Democracy’s fault that the court killed student debt relief, but for a self-appointed Biden booster and believer in the Biden theory of politics, Hoffman sure isn’t helping his guy.

Some qualitative polling has shown that Biden is in dire need of something from the past four years of his presidency to point to that has immediately improved the lives of voters. It’s possible, still, that Biden’s Plan B on debt cancellation will succeed. But none of these Hoffman-funded groups, nor Hoffman himself, have made major public commitments to helping the president’s new signature policy succeed. For now, all they’ve managed to do is help deprive Biden of something he could have actually run on.

MEDIA Inquiries: PRESS@borrowersaction.org

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