No clear policy in all the policy details.

Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Clinton on Policy: Missing in Action

Paula Dwyer writes editorials on economics, finance and politics for Bloomberg View. She was London bureau chief for Businessweek and Washington economics editor for the New York Times, and is a co-author of “Take on the Street: How to Fight for Your Financial Future.”
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Hillary Clinton has given another fine speech about the economy. It was supposed to lay out her plans to create jobs, boost growth and restore income equality, in response to Donald Trump's economic address a few days earlier. Clinton's only new idea, however, was an expansion to an existing child tax credit. Beyond that, there wasn't anything in her latest speech that couldn't be gleaned from her website.

It was a missed opportunity. Maybe she feels she doesn't have to do more -- that all she has to do is stay on-message and remind voters she's not Donald Trump.

But with only 12 weeks before Election Day, voters still don't know which of Clinton's hundreds of proposals are her top priorities, or how she'd get Congress's support for ideas both parties have rejected before.  

Clinton's strategy is to mock Trump's proposals with clever ripostes. His 15 percent tax on pass-through business income is now the "Trump Loophole." But rarely is she forced to defend her own ideas on a level playing field.

This campaign has little substantive give-and-take on the great issues of our day, such as: What size government do we really want and how much can we afford? How will the next president deal with the coming explosion in retirement costs that will send the federal deficit soaring? Do budget deficits matter? What's really driving college tuition up and up, and what should be done to stop it?

Unfortunately, the coming debates are unlikely to shed much light, either, considering how little interest Trump has in the details of policy. But maybe the moderators can use those events to get some answers out of her, essentially using them as a substitute for the press conferences she has so assiduously avoided. Here's my list of the three most important missing-in-action policy discussions: 

Trade: We know that Clinton opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and that she supported it as secretary of state. As she said in last week's speech, "I will stop any trade deal that kills jobs or holds down wages -- including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I oppose it now, I’ll oppose it after the election, and I’ll oppose it as President."

What we don't know is whether she would accept minor changes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal Barack Obama negotiated and pronounce those concessions adequate, or whether she will ditch the agreement entirely. The difference is huge, yet she has never been asked to explain what would make the existing agreement less of a job-killer or wage-dampener.

Her campaign warded off Sanders's attempts, during July negotiations over the Democratic platform, to extract a pledge not to submit the trade deal to Congress after the election. Is she leaving herself wiggle room to send a slightly amended treaty to Congress for a final vote, or is she going to insist, for example, on language barring countries from manipulating their currencies to get a leg up in trade, or revoking the intellectual-property protections for pharmaceutical companies?

Either one could be a deal-killer for Congress or for other countries, most of which will resist changes to a treaty they already made politically difficult concessions over.

Health care: Clinton reiterated her support for a so-called public option among the health-insurance plans that states provide on their exchanges.

Does this mean anyone qualifying for a policy on an exchange could choose a federally run health plan instead of a private one? Or would she give only those over, say, age 55 a chance to buy into the Medicare program as a way of meeting her commitment? By what authority would she require Republican-controlled state legislatures to offer a public option?

For that matter, how would she win over congressional Democrats, who opposed a public option in 2009 when the Affordable Care Act was being negotiated? Would public-option premiums be lower than those for private health plans -- that seems to be the purpose, after all -- and why wouldn't that cause more insurers to abandon Obamacare, an outcome the program can hardly afford?

Taxes: For every one of her new spending proposals -- to repair infrastructure, make community college tuition-free, reduce child-care costs, put broadband in every home by 2020, and so on -- Clinton promises to cover the cost, rather than increase the deficit. Toward that end, she would collect about $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue over a decade.

When added up, her tax increases are substantial, and could also prove counterproductive. Clinton, for example, would require those making $1 million or more to pay at least a 30 percent income tax. High earners would also lose various special loopholes, such as the one for private-equity earnings. The well-off would have to give up about a third of the value of their deductions for things like mortgage interest and charitable contributions and would have to hold assets for six years, instead of one, to get the lowest capital-gains tax rate. Then she would impose a 4 percent tax surcharge on earnings above $5 million.

All told, the top marginal tax rate jumps above 50 percent, a large increase over the 39.6 percent in current law and one Congress will likely be reluctant to impose, even if Democrats pick up more seats.

What's missing in all the minutiae is a formal tax plan, which Clinton keeps promising but has yet to offer, even as she hints of a forthcoming middle-class tax cut proposal. Also missing is any discussion of what all her tax increases would do to investment, economic growth and jobs, and whether the revenue raised would cover the breadth of her new spending proposals. (One recent analysis says she would come up short by $2.2 trillion over 10 years.)

So on taxes, trade and health care, Clinton has a long way to go. If only she had an opponent who could hold her feet to the fire.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net