POLITICS

Bill Clinton hits Bernie Sanders on college tuition and healthcare as Michigan vote nears

Three days before the Michigan primary, former President Bill Clinton pushed for votes for his wife, Hillary, telling campaign volunteers Saturday in Detroit that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had forwarded unrealistic proposals on college tuition and healthcare, two key differences between the Democratic presidential candidates.

In a lengthy speech at a labor union headquarters downtown, Clinton also mocked the behavior of the Republican presidential candidates and asserted that his wife has the best command of both foreign and domestic policy to grasp the job he held for eight years.

The former president isolated two major points of contention between Hillary Clinton and Sanders, though he referred to Sanders only as “her opponent.” (He praised both candidates — this time by name — when he later discussed their reactions to the water contamination in Flint.)

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Sanders has proposed free tuition for everyone attending state colleges and universities, on the grounds that a college education is as necessary now for a good job as a high school diploma once was. Clinton has argued for an income-based plan that would allow students to graduate debt-free but would not allow wealthier families to have their tuition covered by taxpayers.

Bill Clinton told campaign volunteers — with the expectation that they would pass it on to undecided voters — that Sanders’ plan would not help students at private colleges, including historically black colleges, and would encourage schools to raise tuition knowing that the costs would be borne by taxpayers. He also said it was unfair for wealthy families to be subsidized.

“We need upper [income] people to step up for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed the banks: That’s where the money is,” he said. He also repeated the Democratic front-runner’s call for students to be able to refinance past debt, as they would a mortgage, currently forbidden by law.

“Think of what this means. It means you can move out of your parents’ house,” he said to laughter from younger volunteers in the crowd. “It means if you dream of opening your own bakery, you can go down to the bank and your credit won’t be compromised.”

On healthcare, Clinton said Sanders’ proposal for a universal, Medicare-for-all system was unworkable because of the Republican hold on Congress — and that seeking it would undercut Obamacare, which has driven coverage levels up to 90%.

“Her position is, ‘Hey it’s going to be a lot easier to go from 90 to 100 and tackle the problems that are real,’” he said, citing high costs for drugs, high co-payments and difficulties faced by small businesses as areas needing improvement. “That’s a lot easier than fighting and scratching and trying to go from zero to 100,” he said.

He seemed to bridle at Sanders’ criticism of Hillary Clinton’s plan as insufficiently robust.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s 'a little reform' to take Hillary’s position that we can get to 100%,” he said. “It will work, that’s all there is. That’s a very big piece of business and we should do that.”

Clinton did not discuss the issue of trade, which Sanders has made an important part of his campaign in Michigan. Sanders has argued that the North American Free Trade Agreement, one of Bill Clinton’s signature presidential achievements, contributed to the dramatic decline in manufacturing and other jobs in the state and others like it. Sanders has criticized Hillary Clinton’s support of NAFTA and other trade deals.

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The former president did, however, reiterate his wife's proposal that companies moving offshore be assessed an “exit tax,” whose proceeds would be invested in creating American jobs.

Hillary Clinton has also proposed that companies that receive tax breaks from the government be required to pay them back if they try to move out of the country. In commercials running in Michigan, she has cited the case of Johnson Controls, a Midwestern auto supplier that benefited from the auto bailout at the height of the recession but has recently announced plans to move its headquarters to Ireland.

“You look pretty rich going out there and saying, ‘I’ve got my hand out, please save my job,’ and now that you have, ‘I think I will go to Ireland where the tax rate is about a third of what it is here,’” Clinton said. “Johnson Controls would say, ‘Well, but your corporate tax rate’s so high.’ Maybe, so let them work for corporate tax reform, not run off after we bailed them out.”

The Clinton family campaign operation will expand Sunday, with daughter Chelsea Clinton arriving in Michigan. The candidate will appear Sunday night with Sanders at a Democratic debate in Flint.

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker . For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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