Sure, the post-debate buzz is more about tone than substance — who looked more presidential, whether Hillary Clinton got “under Donald Trump’s skin.” But in between the barbs and interruptions, there was plenty of policy to chew over in Monday’s night’s presidential debate. Trump and Clinton tangled over trade, taxes, criminal justice and foreign policy, and while neither candidate — particularly Trump — provided many policy details, the back-and-forth was sufficiently substantive to expose stark differences between the candidates on a range of issues. On the economy, in particular, Trump and Clinton offered sharply different diagnoses of the problems facing U.S. workers, and were even further apart on how to address those challenges.
Perhaps just as striking were the issues that weren’t discussed at length. Energy, an issue Trump discusses frequently on the campaign trail, barely came up, apart from Trump’s dubious claim that the U.S. should have “taken the oil” in Iraq and Libya. (Climate change likewise got only a glancing mention from Clinton.) Health care didn’t get even that much attention — “Obamacare” was never mentioned during the debate. And perhaps most surprisingly, immigration was almost entirely absent; Trump went the whole night without once mentioning the border wall, his signature campaign promise.
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. (All quotations are from a preliminary transcript.)
Trump: “Our jobs are fleeing the country. They’re going to Mexico, they’re going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country, in terms of making our product, they’re devaluing their currency and there’s nobody in our government to fight them.”
Clinton: “Of course, we are 5 percent of the world’s population. We have to trade with the other 95 percent. And we need to have smart, fair trade deals.… But let’s not assume that trade is the only challenge we have in the economy.”
Trump may have gone silent on immigration Monday night, but he passed up few opportunities to address his other signature issue: trade. He zeroed in on the issue in his first answer of the night — a response to a generic question about “putting money … into the pockets of American workers” — and he returned to it repeatedly throughout the economy section of the debate.
In Trump’s telling, the U.S. is engaged in a trade war with the world, and the world is winning. He called NAFTA, the trade deal signed by Bill Clinton, “the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country” and said trade had wiped out manufacturing jobs across the Northeast and Midwest. Those claims are highly questionable: U.S. manufacturing employment has been hit by automation as much as by globalization, and most economists think trade with China has had a much bigger impact on the economy than NAFTA.
But Trump’s broader diagnosis of the problem has some backing from economic research. Economists have long said that trade is good for the economy as a whole, and most still say that. But in recent years, research has found that the negative effects of trade — lost jobs, lower wages — last longer than previously believed. Economists once thought that Rust Belt communities, or at least their residents, would rebound quickly from the loss of factory jobs; that hasn’t happened. Trump offered few solutions, however, beyond general promises to negotiate better trade deals. (He offered a few more details in a report by two campaign advisers that was released earlier Monday.)
Clinton, too, acknowledged the negative effects of trade on some communities. But her overall tone was far different than Trump’s — and even different from her own tone during the primaries, when Bernie Sanders pushed her to the left on trade. Clinton reaffirmed her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal negotiated under Obama that she supported as secretary of state. But she defended trade in general, saying that as a senator she supported some deals and opposed others. “I held them all to the same test,” she said. “Will they create jobs in America? WIll they raise incomes in America? And are they good for our national security?”
Clinton: “What I have proposed would be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy, because they have made all the gains in the economy and I think it’s time that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share to support this country.”
Trump: “Well, I’m really calling for major jobs, because the wealthy are going to create tremendous jobs. They are going to expand their companies, they’re gonna do a tremendous job.”
There was perhaps no issue in Monday’s debate on which the candidates’ policy differences were as stark as on taxes. Clinton promised to tax the rich to pay for her other policy priorities; Trump said he would cut taxes, including on the wealthy, to encourage economic growth.
Trump’s comments represented a bit of a departure for the candidate in emphasis if not necessarily in substance. Most analysts agree that Trump’s tax cuts would go disproportionately to the rich, who would benefit from Trump’s plan to eliminate the estate tax and alternative minimum tax (both of which primarily apply to high earners) and lower the top marginal tax rate. But policy details aside, Trump has often tried to strike a populist tone. He has tended to stress other elements of his plan, such as tax credits for child care and an increase in the standard deduction, which would allow millions more Americans not to pay any income tax at all. Trump has even said in the past that he would raise taxes on the rich, although none of his actual policy proposals would have done so.
On Monday, however, Trump largely abandoned his populist rhetoric on taxes and instead embraced more traditional Republican talking points: Cutting taxes, including on the rich, he argued, will lead them to invest more in companies and create jobs, while lowering and restructuring corporate taxes will encourage businesses to bring back money stashed overseas. Many economists agree that, all else equal, lowering taxes will tend to boost economic growth. But few believe Trump’s plan would deliver as much of an economic boost as he claims. His estimates are based on an analysis from the conservative Tax Foundation, which finds much larger economic effects from tax cuts than most other economists. And even the Tax Foundation doesn’t buy Trump’s claim that his tax plan wouldn’t add to the deficit; the foundation’s analysts recently concluded the plan would reduce revenue by $2.6 trillion to $3.9 trillion, even after factoring in the economic growth they think the plan would deliver.
Clinton spent much of her time criticizing Trump’s plan as “trickle-down economics.” But when she discussed her own plan, she embraced an explicitly liberal vision of higher taxes on the wealthy, both as a matter of fairness and as a way of funding her other policy priorities such as paid family leave and debt-free college. She also mentioned her plan to provide tax credits to companies that share their profits with workers, an approach that some economists have greeted with skepticism.
Before the debate began, I wondered whether either candidate would bring up recent census data showing a big jump in household income in 2015. They didn’t have to — moderator Lester Holt mentioned the report in his first question. But in the next sentence he referred to inequality in the large number of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, highlighting the danger for Clinton in sounding too positive a note about the economy. Clinton’s response to Holt focused on the need for a fairer economy (something we may be starting to see already), but later in the evening she was more positive: “Let’s stop for a second and remember where we were eight years ago,” Clinton said at one point. “We have come back from the abyss.”
Crime and policing
Clinton: “We’ve got to do several things at the same time. We have to restore trust between communities and the police. We have to work to make sure that our police are using the best training, the best techniques, that they’re well-prepared to use force only when necessary. Everyone should be respected by the law and everyone should respect the law. Right now, that’s not the case in a lot of our neighborhoods.”
Trump: “We need law and order. If we don’t have it, we’re not gonna have a country…. We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics, are living in hell, because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.”
Monday’s debate fell on the same day that the FBI released new data showing that the U.S. murder rate rose sharply in 2015, though it remains far below its peak. Neither candidate referred to the new numbers directly (although they did get into a tussle over which direction the murder rate was headed in New York City), but crime nonetheless dominated the middle portion of the debate.
The candidates offered different policy approaches: Trump called for more aggressive policing, singling out New York’s abandoning of its “stop-and-frisk” policy under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Trump said the controversial policy worked; Clinton said it discriminated against minority residents. (Holt pointed out that the policy had been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge; Trump said the ruling would have been reversed if it had been appealed.) Clinton instead called for gun restrictions, including universal background checks (which research has suggested could help reduce gun killings) and broader criminal justice reform, including abandoning mandatory-minimum sentences, which she said “have put too many people away for too long, for doing too little.” (Criminal justice reform is a potentially awkward issue for Clinton, who has faced criticism from some progressive activists for her support of tough sentencing laws during her husband’s administration.)
But the candidates’ differences on criminal justice went beyond specific policy proposals. They at times seemed to be discussing entirely different countries. Trump described urban crime in near-apocalyptic terms, singling out Chicago as resembling a “war-torn country.” As he has on the campaign trail, he argued that his focus on crime should appeal to African-Americans, who he said are disproportionately affected by the violence. “We have to protect our inner cities, because African-American communities are being decimated by crime,” Trump said.
Clinton criticized Trump for painting “such a dire negative picture of black communities” and stressed that crime is still down overall. The solution to crime, she said, is better relationships between police and communities, and an end to “systemic racism in our criminal justice system.” But as I wrote last summer, even cities that are committed to community-driven solutions have struggled to reduce the epidemic of urban street violence.
Clinton: “I spent a year and a half putting together a coalition that included Russia and China, to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran. And we did drive them to the negotiating table, and my successor, John Kerry, and President Obama got a deal that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program. Without firing a single shot. That’s diplomacy, that’s coalition building, that’s working with other nations.”
Trump: “We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries. They do not pay us, but they should be paying us, because we are providing a tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune…. We can’t defend Japan, a behemoth selling us cars by the millions.”
Foreign policy is Clinton’s area of expertise, and she discussed various international issues — NATO, Iran, Iraq, counterterrorism and more — in detail. But her basic principles were familiar ones in the Obama era: strong military alliances, a willingness to negotiate with enemies, a desire for multilateral action but without taking unilateral military action off the table. With a few tweaks in emphasis, her foreign policy vision could have been that of Obama, John Kerry or Al Gore.
But if Clinton is a mainstream Democrat on foreign policy, Trump is anything but a mainstream Republican. He said he would demand that Germany and Japan help pay for the U.S.’s nuclear protection. He said the NATO alliance “could be obsolete.” He said the U.S. should have “taken the oil” in Iraq and Libya. All those moves would represent a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy, and would be a departure from the approaches of past Republican presidents.