Early in the widely anticipated first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton deployed a scripted line accusing Donald Trump of supporting “trumped-up trickle-down” economic policies. But it was Trump who put Clinton on the defensive by attacking her husband Bill’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA.
Clinton had attacked Trump’s populist image by accusing him of being the beneficiary of a $14 million loan from his father and a friend to the wealthy. In contrast, Clinton said she would “do more for the middle class” and bragged her own father was a “small businessman.”
As he has done before, Trump protested he was only the recipient of a “very small” $1 million loan from his father. However, Trump was able to turn the tables by moving the discussion to trade.
“Our country’s in deep trouble. We don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to devaluations and all of these countries all over the world, especially China,” he said. “… We have to renegotiate our trade deals.”
Trump also showed knowledge of specifics by discussing the VAT (value added tax) used by Mexico, noting American products sold to Mexico are taxed but Mexican products sold in the United States are not. Trump called the arrangement “defective” and accused politicians, including Hillary Clinton, of not doing anything about it.
“[I]n all fairness to Secretary Clinton, when she started talking about this, it was really very recently,” Trump said. “She’s been doing this for 30 years. And why hasn’t she made the agreements better? The NAFTA agreement is defective.”
Later in the debate, Trump returned to the theme, asking Clinton directly what she had been doing for 30 years when only “now you’re just starting to think of solutions.”
In contrast, Trump claimed he “would bring back jobs.” When Clinton appealed to the economic record of her husband’s administration, Trump thundered, “[Bill Clinton] approved NAFTA, which is the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.”
Clinton tried to defend NAFTA but Trump talked over her. Clinton eventually was reduced to stating: “Well, that’s your opinion. That is your opinion.”
Trump was able to guide the discussion to one of the main themes of his campaign: the loss of manufacturing jobs in the heartland.
“You go to New England, you go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want, Secretary Clinton, and you will see devastation where manufacture is down 30, 40, sometimes 50 percent,” he said. “NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.
“And now you want to approve Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). You were totally in favor of it. 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.”
Trump also forced Clinton on the defensive regarding President Obama’s defense of TPP. Clinton claimed to be opposed to TPP, even though she once supported it. Trump repeatedly asked her if TPP was Obama’s fault, but Clinton refused to answer.
Instead, she dodged the question by stating: “There are different views about what’s good for our country, our economy, and our leadership in the world. And I think it’s important to look at what we need to do to get the economy going again.”
And Clinton was once again left without a response when Trump accused her of having no “plan” to accomplish her economic goals. Instead, Clinton referred the audience to her book “Stronger Together,” which is at a “bookstore or at an airport near you.”
Clinton’s campaign book, ostensibly co-authored with Tim Kaine, was the subject of recent controversy because of its overwhelmingly negative reviews. Amazon.com assisted Clinton by deleting negative reviews.