After two debates dominated by personal attacks and overheated rhetoric, the issues returned to center stage last night. Oh, sure, the post-debate headlines focused on Donald Trump’s refusal to promise that he would accept the results of next month’s vote. And there were still plenty of interruptions and heated exchanges. But in between the barbs, the candidates held what was without a doubt their most substantive debate yet.
Some of the ground the candidates covered was familiar: taxes, the economy, nuclear policy and the war in Syria. But Trump and Hillary Clinton also spent time on issues that had until now been largely ignored, including abortion, the national debt and, most significantly, immigration — a defining issue during the campaign, but one that had barely been mentioned in the previous two debates. On the other hand, climate change was still missing in action, meaning we will have gone through every general election debate without the candidates being asked about what many experts say will be one of the most critical issues facing the next president.
For the full rundown of what the candidates discussed, check out our live blog. But here are a few highlights from the major policy debates of the evening.
Trump: “We’re a country of laws. We either have a border or we don’t. Now, you can come back in and you can become a citizen, but it’s very unfair — we have millions of people that did it the right way. They’re on line, they’re waiting. … Very unfair that somebody runs across the border, becomes a citizen.”
Clinton: “I think we are both a nation of immigrants and we are a nation of laws and that we can act accordingly. And that’s why I’m introducing immigration reform within the first hundred days with a path to citizenship…. Now, what I am also arguing is that bringing undocumented immigrants out from the shadows, putting them in the formal economy will be good because then employers can’t exploit them and undercut Americans’ wages.”
Immigration was the elephant in the room in the first two debates, the huge campaign issue that somehow barely came up. Even before Wednesday night’s debate, it was clear that the elephant would finally be acknowledged — immigration was one of the debate’s six pre-announced topics.
Initially, the two candidates stuck more or less to their expected talking points. Trump promised to build a wall on the U.S.’s southern border — although he didn’t mention his plan to make Mexico pay for it — and he hit on a familiar theme linking undocumented immigrants to violent crime. (There is no evidence that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are more dangerous than native-born Americans. If anything, research has found immigrants commit violent crimes at a lower rate.) “We have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out,” Trump said at one point. Clinton, meanwhile, agreed that border security is necessary but emphasized her support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers and argued that a more forgiving approach is better not just for immigrants but for native-born workers as well.
But a few minutes into the immigration discussion, an interesting shift took place: Each candidate seemed to try to claim the other’s strongest position. Clinton criticized Trump for allegedly employing undocumented workers on his construction projects, which she said drove down American wages. (The research on that claim is mixed.) And Trump noted that President Obama has deported millions of undocumented immigrants. (That’s true. Obama, despite his executive actions offering legal status to some undocumented workers who arrived in the U.S. as children, has deported more people than George W. Bush.) “She doesn’t want to say that, but that’s what’s happened,” Trump said of Obama’s deportations.
Trump: “I am pro-life and I will be appointing pro-life judges, I would think that that would go back to the individual states. … And [overturning Roe v. Wade will] happen automatically in my opinion because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.”
Clinton: “I have met with women who, toward the end of their pregnancy, get the worst news one could get, that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy. I do not think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions.”
After immigration, perhaps the most striking absence from the first two debates (sorry, Gary Johnson) was discussion of social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In past presidential races, such issues took center stage, but they have drawn little attention this year. (They got a bit more attention during the Republican primary, when “religious liberty” became a stand-in for same-sex marriage during the debates.)
Earlier this year, Trump drew heat for suggesting that women who get abortions should face “some form of punishment.” He avoided repeating that phrase on Wednesday, instead taking a more traditional conservative tack of promising to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. But Trump also described late-term abortions in graphic terms, saying Clinton wanted to let pregnant women “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day.” (Virtually all abortions are performed before the 21st week of pregnancy; doctors do not perform them in the ninth month.)
Clinton stressed that most late-term abortions occur only when women discover fetal abnormalities, which she called “often the most heartbreaking, painful decisions for families to make.” But Clinton didn’t go as far as many modern advocates, who in recent years have tried to destigmatize abortion. Clinton, who once called for abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” has since shifted her tone, offering a more forceful defense of abortion rights. But she still framed abortion as a difficult decision, albeit one that should nearly always be left up to women to make. “This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make,” Clinton said, “and I do not believe the government should be making it.”
Debt and spending
Clinton: “I pay for everything I’m proposing. I do not add a penny to the national debt. … So when I talk about how we’re going to pay for education, how we’re going to invest in infrastructure, how we’re going to get the cost of prescription drugs down, and a lot of the other issues that people talk to me about all the time, I’ve made it very clear, we are going where the money is. We are going to ask the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share. And there is no evidence whatsoever that that will slow down or diminish our growth.”
Trump: “We’re bringing [growth in gross domestic product] from 1 percent up to 4 percent. And I actually think we can go higher than 4 percent. I think you could go to to 5 or 6 percent. … We will have created a tremendous economic machine once again. To do that, we’re taking back jobs. We’re not going to let our companies be raided by other countries where we lose all our jobs.”
The real winner of Wednesday night’s debate may have been neither Clinton nor Trump but rather the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an advocacy group that promotes policies that reduce the federal budget deficit. Moderator Chris Wallace referenced the group twice, and framed an entire section of the debate around its core issue. (The vice presidential debate likewise featured questions focused on the debt, drawing criticism from liberal groups.)
Wallace described the rising debt as a “problem,” but that’s far from a unanimous position among economists. U.S. debt is high by historical standards — it grew rapidly early in Obama’s term due to a combination of stimulus package and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but its growth rate has since slowed — but most economists think the U.S. can safely borrow more without damaging the economy (they disagree about how much more). And with interest rates low (making it cheaper to borrow money) and the economy still recovering from the Great Recession, many liberal economists think the U.S. should be borrowing more, not less.
Neither candidate challenged Wallace’s framing of the question, however. Clinton repeated her pledge not to “add a penny to the national debt,” by which she presumably meant she would not increase the debt beyond current projections — otherwise she would have to immediately close the government’s $590 billion budget deficit, a move that would almost certainly throw the U.S. into a recession. Clinton’s tax plan would raise government revenues by $1.4 trillion over the next decade, according to an analysis from the Tax Policy Center, with virtually all of the extra money coming from the richest 1 percent of Americans. But she would spend essentially all of that extra revenue on various policy priorities such as debt-free college, leaving her overall plan revenue-neutral.
Trump’s tax plan, meanwhile, would add trillions to the deficit under even the most favorable assumptions. Wallace questioned Trump on the issue, asking him why he (and Clinton) were “ignoring the problem,” but Trump largely avoided the question, implying that his plans would boost economic growth so much that deficits would disappear. That’s a claim that virtually no serious economist finds credible. For one thing, presidents have relatively little control over the short-term direction of the economy. And while it’s true that economic growth has been disappointing in recent years, few economists think that sustained growth of 4 percent per year — let alone 5 or 6 percent growth — is realistic at a time when the population is aging and population growth is slow. Ironically, one way Trump might be able to boost growth would be to increase the population by letting in more immigrants, something he seems unlikely to do.
Guns and crime
Clinton: “I support the Second Amendment. … I understand and respect the tradition of gun ownership. It goes back to the founding of our country. But I also believe that there can be and must be reasonable regulation.”
Trump: “In Chicago, which has the toughest gun laws in the United States, probably you could say by far they have more gun violence than any other city. So we have the toughest laws and you have tremendous gun violence.”
Trump didn’t emphasize crime as much in Wednesday night’s debate as he did in the first contest, when he said Chicago resembled a “war-torn country.” But he called out Chicago’s violence during an early exchange over guns, and returned to the issue of crime in his closing statement when he said inner cities are a “disaster” and that “you get shot walking to the store.”
Trump is right that gun violence is on the rise in the U.S. Murders rose sharply in 2015, and preliminary data indicates the increase has continued in 2016, although the growth rate appears to have slowed somewhat. Chicago has been hit particularly hard; as of early October, the city had seen a 42 percent increase in murder over the same period in 2015. But in other ways, Trump’s apocalyptic vision is misleading. Other forms of violent crime are up much less than murder, and homicide rates remain far below their 1990s levels. Moreover, as Simone Sebastian wrote in The Washington Post after the last debate, Trump’s frequent use of “inner city” as a synonym for “black” is badly outdated: More African-Americans now live in the suburbs than in the city.
Clinton focused specifically on gun violence, referring repeatedly to the 33,000 Americans who die by firearm each year. She didn’t mention that close to two-thirds of those deaths are suicides, instead choosing to emphasize homicide and tragic accidents involving toddlers. (Accidents make up a small share of gun deaths and, as my colleague Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote earlier this year, are surprisingly difficult to define.)
Clinton said she supported the Second Amendment, including the individual right to bear arms (although she said she disagreed with the Supreme Court’s D.C. v. Heller decision, which definitively established that right for the first time). But she called for “reasonable” gun restrictions, including universal background checks. Research in Missouri and Connecticut has found that a particularly strict version of background checks, known as permit-to-purchase laws,1 reduces gun homicides and suicides. But other restrictions that Clinton supports, such as bans on some types of assault weapons, are less well-grounded in scientific research.