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What the Debate Tells About How Candidates Would Govern

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Friday, September 30, 2016

You've heard and read by now lots of spin and speculation about who won and where the polls are going to move after Monday's presidential debate. We'll know the answers to these questions soon. The more important question for the long run is how each of these candidates would govern. The debate provides no certain answers to that question, but it does offer some useful clues.  

Hillary Clinton started off with a laundry list of incremental economic programs -- none of which would promote economic growth. Some have already been legislated (equal pay for women, 1963), others are tilted to the upscale (debt-free college). A possible exception: the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which she has renounced but which she might, as Donald Trump predicted, manage to find acceptable once elected.   

What about the "investments" she called for? Infrastructure spending employs a few high-skill workers and may, some day, provide facilities. Other "investments" usually turn out to be subsidies for Democratic-supporting public employee unions. Revive the economy by building solar panels? The government tried that with Solyndra and lost $535 million.   

Of course, Clinton's sharply higher individual tax rates and maintenance of the world's highest corporate tax would stifle growth to some greater or lesser extent. Her policies are based on pathetically weak economic theories:  that the 2001-03 tax cuts caused the 2007 financial collapse; that "clean energy" will power every home cheaply and reliably; and that "trickle down" never works.    

This looks like stuff concocted to attract Bernie Sanders voters. And little of it is likely to be enacted if, as just about every expert predicts, Republicans maintain their majority in the House.    

A President Clinton could do more damage on other fronts. She wants federal "retraining" of local police and attributes racial disparities in law enforcement to "systemic racism" rather than to well-known racial disparities in criminal behavior. Encouraging grievances against police has already produced riots and increases in murder and violent crime. Central cities were ripped apart for decades after the 1960s. Clinton might set the process in motion again.   

On foreign policy Clinton endorses the Iran deal as a "lid" on its nuclear weapons program, rather than the roadway it is, and promises victory over ISIS in a year or so. Let's hope. But her main case here, one with some foundation, is the ignorance and possible recklessness of her opponent.   

From Donald Trump's debate performance emerge clues that she may be right. He returned repeatedly to his promises to tear up trade agreements and impose tariffs -- would Congress vote them? -- on imports. He continued to suggest he wouldn't defend allies if they don't spend more on defense. That's something every administration seeks, but it's Sisyphus' work, doomed to frustration -- because American leaders, at least till now, recognized that America benefits hugely from having free people and free markets around the world.   

Several times in the debate, when his business success or personal behavior was challenged, Trump was distracted into self-harming monologues. On the Iraq War, instead of discussing a dozen-year-old Sean Hannity interview, he could have simply said he opposed it before Clinton did. On the birther issue, a brief apology would do. Instead he chewed up time when he could have noted that Clinton would shut down almost all fracking -- the one thing that has increased energy supplies and cut emissions and prices in the Obama years.   

And he might keep up with the news. A recent government report showed increased illegal southern-border crossings. Last week, former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda noted that a President Trump actually could make Mexicans pay for a wall there. On Monday morning the FBI announced that murders rose 11 percent in 2015. These things support Trump's arguments. He failed to mention them.   

Numerous commentators pointed out that Clinton seemed better prepared than Trump and spoke more coherently -- something that appeals to us in the chattering classes. But both candidates' performances suggest underperformance as president. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and (some would add) Barack Obama came to office with intellectually serious and achievable platforms. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump would.    

Clinton, as the email scandal reveals, cocoons herself in a very tight circle of sycophants. She prepares doggedly, but the homework she turns in is plodding and intellectually shoddy. Trump, as his campaign reveals, has shrewd insights but also vast areas of ignorance and seems too lazy to be anything but his improvisatory self.     

Clinton seems too contrived to be a good president, and Trump seems too undisciplined. It's your choice Nov. 8.   

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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