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It's Too Bad the Candidates Didn't Debate This

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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The presidential debates gave the world a chance to watch Donald Trump bluff about his mistreatment of women and lie about mocking a person with disabilities. Nearly as theatrical was the sight of Hillary Clinton spinning convoluted explanations of why people shouldn’t fret about her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state.

These and other familiar election-season spectacles may have revealed something about the candidates’ character, but shed little light on how they’d approach governing. Missed substantive opportunities in all three presidential debates included:

Taxes. Obligatory cliches aside, Trump’s tax proposals weren’t debated seriously. They dwarf anything that Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush proposed and overwhelmingly would benefit the rich. And, contrary to Trump’s debate-stage assertion, taxes on carried interest would be reduced, not increased, for most private equity and hedge fund executives.

How, given recent history, can Trump explain how this would produce magical growth? As my Bloomberg View colleague Matthew Winkler has written, more manufacturing jobs were created in the last 40 years under Democratic presidents than under Republican ones. Does exacerbating income inequality matter? Trump probably doesn’t know or care enough about the specifics of his proposals to defend them. But it would have been instructive for future policy discussions to hear him try.

QuickTake Entitlements

Entitlements. Even liberal economists tend to acknowledge that the growth of Medicare and Social Security have to be restrained. Trump had nothing to say about how he’d do that. Clinton’s website announces her promise to “defend” entitlements “by asking the wealthy to contribute more,” a thin formula that was never challenged during the debates. If pressed, she might have had to at least outline, as President Barack Obama has, the contours of what compromises she’d fashion and accept to keep benefits flowing. She wasn’t.

QuickTake Cool War

Russia and NATO. Trump continued during the debates to say conciliatory things about Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said U.S. allies should pay more for collective military expenses as a condition of his support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He wasn’t asked whether he understands that the U.S. is already bound by the NATO treaty’s Article 5, which says an attack against one member is an attack on all. That means he didn't have to outline what his response would be if Russia behaved aggressively toward its neighbors Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, who are all NATO members.

Asia. Clinton says that as secretary of state under Obama, she led a “pivot to Asia” in U.S. foreign policy. Yet she came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact aimed at containing Chinese influence and which she once championed. Excerpts of her speeches released by WikiLeaks indicate that her change in thinking owed much to political calculation.

Wouldn’t it have been interesting to hear Clinton explain how she’d propose to confront China’s growing commercial ambitions after abandoning the tool she helped devise for that purpose?

QuickTake Climate Change

Climate change. Other than a few cliches, global warming was a non-issue in the debates. It won’t be a non-issue for the next president, and Clinton confidants say she realizes this might be the biggest challenge of the next four years. Her website includes a bullet-pointed 10-year plan.

It’s not self-executing, so the debate stage should have been the place for her to explain how she’d carry out her proposals and in what order, and for Trump to respond with something more than his empty promise to mine more coal.

It’s OK if the debates didn’t have much political impact. What’s disappointing that they didn’t lay any groundwork for what happens after Jan. 20, when the next president takes office.

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:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net