US Presidential Candidates Face Off on Trade in First Debate

29 September 2016

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J. Trump openly clashed on trade and their respective visions on how to boost the American economy on Monday, during their first of three presidential debates.

The 26 September debate, spanning 90 minutes, was expected to draw 100 million viewers for the live show. Held at Hofstra University in the state of New York and moderated by Lester Holt of the NBC news network, this debate was meant to focus on the following three themes: “achieving prosperity; America’s direction; and securing America.”

This year’s presidential election has seen trade catapulted toward the top of the agenda, with both major party candidates openly rebuffing a major Pacific Rim trade deal that has been negotiated under the Obama Administration.

Clinton, who is the Democratic Party nominee, had previously supported the accord as Secretary of State under President Barack Obama. She has since retracted her backing, citing concerns with the final outcome. Trump, for his part, broke with many in his own Republican Party in rejecting the deal, contributing to a difficult political climate among lawmakers on the subject – though some say they have concerns of their own on the final provisions.

Duelling economic approaches

While their overall stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appears similar, the nuances of the candidates’ respective approaches to the American economy show some notable differences in both the type and depth of policies they plan to pursue in office.

Clinton framed her overall vision on how she would revamp the country’s economy as one of investing in every citizen and their future – aiming to prepare the United States for an era where advanced manufacturing, cleaner energy, and improved technology are the order of the day.

She also touted the important role smaller companies will play in this new landscape, and pledged to create new jobs through investing in the country’s infrastructure. The Democratic Party nominee further promised to take steps at levelling the domestic playing field, including through equal pay for women and increasing the national minimum wage.

Trump’s opening salvo, in turn, focused more on the dangers of outsourcing jobs, repeating past complaints over allegedly lost jobs to Mexico and China. “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us. We have to stop our companies from leaving the United States and, with it, firing all of their people.”

The real estate magnate also committed to cutting taxes for big and small businesses, likening his plans to those of former President Ronald Reagan and suggesting that his approach will cause companies old and new to flock to America.

“It’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch. Companies will come. They will build. They will expand. New companies will start. And I look very, very much forward to doing it. We have to renegotiate our trade deals, and we have to stop these countries from stealing our companies and our jobs,” he said.

Clinton warned, however, that experts find her plan to be better for the American economy, and that Trump’s plan could lead to millions in job losses, trillions in additional national debt, and potentially a new recession.

“We’re now on the precipice of having a potentially much better economy, but the last thing we need to do is to go back to the policies that failed us in the first place,” she argued.

NAFTA as litmus test?

While the TPP was repeatedly raised during the debate, a much older trade deal also underwent heavy scrutiny during Monday’s clash.

Earlier this year, Trump pledged that he would insist upon Canada and Mexico re-opening the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which entered into force in 1994. Should the two countries refuse, he warned, he would pull the United States out of the deal entirely. (See Bridges Weekly, 30 June 2016)

The Republican presidential contender has repeatedly derided the tri-party accord as having done deep harm to the American economy, driving jobs away from the US to its trading partners. Trump has laid particular blame on Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, who supported the accord in the final ratification stages.

However, the deal itself was negotiated and signed under Bill Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush, and drew the support of many Republican lawmakers when it was voted through Congress.

On Monday, Trump called NAFTA both the “single worst trade deal ever approved in this country,” later expanding that assessment to call it the “worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere.”

The assertion was challenged by his opponent, with the former Secretary of State arguing that the North American accord led to increases in income and manufacturing jobs in the decade when the free trade deal was approved.

Studies on the subject differ in their assessment of how NAFTA has affected the US economy in practice, and whether those jobs that may have moved overseas or otherwise lost were the result of the trade accord or from other factors.

Assessing trade deals

Throughout the Monday night showdown, Trump repeatedly held up NAFTA as a parallel to the TPP, much as the two deals are very different both in approach, as well as in their commercial scope. While the TPP includes all three NAFTA parties, it also has among its signatories various countries from Asia and South America, with the group encompassing nearly 40 percent of global GDP.

The TPP also features an ambitious rule-making agenda, with its chapters tackling issues such as labour and environmental rights, along with intellectual property issues, state-owned enterprises, and electronic commerce.

Clinton, for her part, referred back to her previous history as the senator for New York as an example of how she would assess the merits of all trade deals should she win office.

“When I was in the Senate, I had a number of trade deals that came before me, and I held them all to the same test. Will they create jobs in America? Will they raise incomes in America? And are they good for our national security?” she said.

She specifically raised the example of the CAFTA deal – what is now known as the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement – as an accord that did not surpass this test, in her view, and therefore failed to win her support. (See Bridges Weekly, 10 March 2016)

That accord is nonetheless in force, having secured the necessary backing at the time from various other US lawmakers. Other parties to the deal include Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Clinton also warned against pinning all of the American economy’s woes on trade, while pledging to place trade enforcement high on her agenda, including by appointing a “special prosecutor” tasked with ensuring that US trading partners are indeed following the rules that have been negotiated in different forums.

“When I was secretary of state, we actually increased American exports globally 30 percent. We increased them to China 50 percent. So I know how to really work to get new jobs and to get exports that helped to create more new jobs,” Clinton added.

However, Trump claimed that Clinton would push for the TPP’s approval should she win in November, despite the former Secretary of State’s repeated promises to the contrary.

“You were totally in favour of [the TPP]. Then you heard what I was saying, how bad it is, and you said, I can't win that debate. But you know that if you did win, you would approve that, and that will be almost as bad as NAFTA. Nothing will ever top NAFTA,” he claimed.

Calling that claim inaccurate, Clinton retorted that the TPP lost her support once she saw what its final terms included.

Clean energy

The two presidential contenders also openly clashed on their approach to energy policy during Monday night’s debate, and where the United States currently stands in this area under the Obama Administration.

Clinton, for her part, touted the development and deployment of cleaner energy sources as a way to generate growth and jobs – another position that is also part of the Democratic Party platform adopted in July. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 July 2016)

“Some country is going to be the clean-energy superpower of the 21st century,” she said, calling upon the United States to be both a domestic and an international leader in this field.

“We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels. We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That's a lot of jobs; that's a lot of new economic activity,” she said.

Clinton also raised Trump’s past assertion on social media site Twitter that climate change is a “hoax” backed by China, which her opponent denied making on Monday – despite proof to the contrary. The Republican candidate also criticised Clinton for her interest in investing in solar energy, arguing that one case of government support in a solar company had resulted in “a disaster” – in a seeming reference to the Solyndra company’s collapse in 2011 after receiving state aid. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 October 2011)

“Now, look, I’m a great believer in all forms of energy, but we’re putting a lot of people out of work. Our energy policies are a disaster. Our country is losing so much in terms of energy, in terms of paying off our debt,” said Trump, without offering any specifics on either these claims of financial losses nor on how he might address them as president.

Coming up

The major party candidates are scheduled to meet on the debate stage twice more before the 8 November election. The next debate is on 9 October at Washington University in St. Louis, while the third and final debate will be on 19 October at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The vice presidential candidates will also debate once, on 4 October at Longwood University in the US state of Virginia.

ICTSD reporting; “Transcript of the First Debate,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 27 September 2016; “History lesson: More Republicans than Democrats supported NAFTA,” THE WASHINGTON POST, 9 May 2016; “Fact Check: Trump and Clinton Debate for the First Time,” NPR, 26 September 2016.

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