Hillary Clinton's comments on how people on dates should split the bill — made in an interview with Prachi Gupta for Cosmopolitan — are hilariously nuanced, and a weirdly great look into how she approaches public policy:
Bill splitting is an issue where people have weirdly doctrinaire, down-the-line positions, whether it's "men should always pay," "you should always split," "the person doing the asking-out should always pay," or whatever.
Some of these positions make more sense than others (I'm partial to "always split"), but they all have their difficulties. If you always split, how do you account for discrepancies in disposable income — especially in heterosexual relationships, where the woman is likely to be at a disadvantage? If the person asking always pays, how do you account for the severe asymmetry in which gender typically does the asking in straight relationships?
So Clinton opts not to endorse a flawed universal rule and instead opts for maximum flexibility. No hard-and-fast rule, just stay attuned to your partner's feelings.
How this view is a great metaphor for Clintonism
This maps well onto her approach to policy during the 2016 race. Bernie Sanders believes strongly in universalism. His answer to what to do about health care is to give everybody health care for free. His answer to what to do about college is to give everybody college for free. No tax credits, no means testing, just universal provision of services to solve the problem in question.
Clinton's proposals, by contrast, have been particular and designed to solve problems for a specific subset of affected people. She doesn't want free college; she wants accountability mechanisms to improve graduation rates and income-based repayment for debt. Hers is not a plan designed to create a universal approach to college that affects everyone in the public system, but one designed to solve discrete problems for discrete groups of students: those in high-dropout programs, 20-somethings with high debt payments relative to income, etc.
Same goes for health care. She doesn't want universal single-payer health care. She wants a new tax credit for people with high out-of-pocket health costs, new incentives to encourage states to expand Medicaid, and a public option. It's not a program for everyone, it's a program for Texas parents with incomes between 18 and 133 percent of the poverty level, because that's who Clinton thinks needs help the most.
You can formulate a whole platform for Clinton by just tweaking the words in her answer to Cosmo:
- I think splitting the cost on a date has to be evaluated on a kind of case-by-case basis.
- I think subsidizing college has to be evaluated on a kind of case-by-case basis.
- I think further expanding health coverage has to be evaluated on a kind of case-by-case basis.
- I think raising taxes on the rich has to be evaluated on a kind of case-by-case basis.
- I think regime change through military force has to be evaluated on a kind of case-by-case basis.
The pros and cons of Clintonian particularism
The downside of this approach is that universalism has its merits. As my colleague Matt Yglesias notes, stuff like "free college" and "free health care" are readily understandable to people. Everyone buys in, and everyone benefits.
That doesn't just make them better campaign proposals that are easier to drum up support for, it makes them better policies — people feel more comfortable accessing them, feel more confident in what the policies are doing, etc.
Arguably a major weakness of the Affordable Care Act is that it's so complicated and poorly understood by the public that it results in an uphill battle for its defenders. Social Security, by contrast, is very easy to understand and benefits for it. There's also a case to be made that universal programs are less wasteful and "kludgy" than just providing services universally.
But to stick up for the Clintonian view of bill splitting for a second, one thing that comes across in the answer is a desire to evaluate every important, notable case when determining the proper policy about something. She's not the type to lay down a principle and insist upon its implementation in all circumstances, without first seeing how it would play out in each of a series of likely scenarios.
In practice, this obsession with detailed impact analysis translates into a fluidity and comfort with policy details that stands in stark contrast to Sanders. Whereas Sanders's explanation of his plan to break up the banks to the New York Daily News editorial board was widely mocked as overly vague, Clinton told the board that if she wanted to break up the banks…
There are two approaches. There's Section 121, Section 165, and both of them can be used by regulators to either require a bank to sell off businesses, lines of businesses or assets, because of the finding that is made by two-thirds of the financial regulators that the institution poses a grave threat, or if the Fed and the FDIC conclude that the institutions' living will resolution is inadequate and is not going to get any better, there can also be requirements that they do so.
Detailed enough for ya?
Reasonable people can disagree over how important this kind of detailed policy mastery is in a president, especially given that presidents have dozens of highly qualified advisers to fill in those gaps in knowledge.
But it's better not to have those gaps to start with, and Clinton's obsession with carefully analyzing everything, down to questions of date bill splitting, has left her with a distinct advantage relative to Sanders on this score.