by George Chichirau
Public Policy PhD student
The final debate of the current campaign season touched on a large number of themes, and in far more detail than previous ones (although the bar was set very low early on). A significant amount of time was devoted to the economy, where Hillary Clinton marked the return of state-sanctioned dirigisme, and an end to laissez-faire. The reason given for such a stark break was simple: the absolute need to save the American middle class before it disappears, through increasing the minimum wage, fixing the health insurance marketplace, making universities more affordable and investing heavily in infrastructure and clean energy.
All this is to be paid through tax increases on the wealthy (the top tax rate would go under Clinton to 45%). President Trump, on the other hand, would repeat the economic agenda of George W. Bush: his view is that tax cuts are enough to jumpstart the economy, together with the closing of tax loopholes. On the issue of debt, both candidates refused to admit that their respective plans would increase the already enormous amounts owed by the U.S. government. The moderators pressed with ominous details: U.S. debt is currently approaching $20 trillion – or more than $60,000 for each American citizen – and quickly increasing. The amount of debt has nearly doubled under President Obama and it is difficult to see – as both the moderator and candidate Trump pointed out – how Hillary Clinton’s plans will reduce spending, given the scale of her reconstruction plans. But at least Clinton had a plan: when pressed, Trump said nothing except that the problem will disappear because of high economic growth under his leadership – growth as high as 6%.
Immigration measures, as always, were hotly contested, but it seemed at times that differences were more rhetorical than policy-oriented. Donald Trump rescinded his earlier proposal to build a wall along the entirety of the Mexican border, perhaps in an effort to appear more palatable to centrist voters, simply saying: “We’ll see.” In fact, fences and barriers of various kinds already exist along a third of the border, because of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (voted in, amongst others, by Hillary Clinton). When one thinks of how surprisingly tough Bill Clinton was on immigration, and of how Barack Obama broke all records on deportation numbers, it is difficult to see much of a difference between the “new,” relatively moderate candidate Trump and an eventual Democrat leadership on the issue. Given bureaucratic inertia and the difficulty of changing laws in a time of high partisanship, perhaps the USCIS will continue to operate as usual under either one.
About half an hour in, the debate became acrimonious, with themes merging with one another. Talk of immigration gave way to talk on Syria, by way of Trump mentioning the “tens of thousands of Syrian refugees” that Clinton supposedly wishes to bring into the country without knowing who they are. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, defended herself forcefully and mentioned a number of policy details on Syria: she proposed the establishment of air exclusion zones in order to protect civilians, while refusing to commit ground troops. But it was sometimes difficult to extract actual policies from in between the bitter accusations – Trump calling Clinton aligned with Iran, Clinton calling Trump an ally of Putin, and worse.
At the end, Trump refused to commit to accepting the results of the presidential election, should they be unfavorable. It is difficult to know what to make of this surprise move, since the American system of government does not depend on the good conduct of the loser. Perhaps Trump thought continuing accusations could confer him an electoral advantage, though given recent polls, it seems to have been a poor bet.