Monday night’s presidential debate began poorly for Hillary Clinton. Very, very poorly. Subject No. 1 was the economy, and the woman on whose shoulders liberal democracy might presently rest spent much of the opening discussion getting absolutely savaged by Donald Trump on his favorite subject, and one of her weakest: trade. At times it felt like one of those horrifying 15-second knockouts you see sometimes in MMA—where after months of anticipation, one fighter just ethers the other with a kick to the head.
Mercifully, Clinton recovered and even dominated the rest of the evening. But Clinton’s weakness on trade shouldn’t have been a problem, especially considering the incoherence and dishonesty of Trump’s economic proposals. And going forward it doesn’t have to be—if Clinton tweaks her case in a few simple ways.
Coming into Monday’s event, it seemed patently obvious that Trump would tear into Clinton on trade, considering that her husband signed the much-loathed North American Free Trade Agreement and welcomed China into the World Trade Organization, which helped it decimate American manufacturers. Clinton was also notoriously for the Trans Pacific Partnership before she was against it, calling it the “gold standard” of trade deals back in 2012. None of this plays particularly well in Ohio or Michigan, and for good reason. Although politicians like Trump exaggerate the overall importance of trade, there are lots of factory towns across this country that have seen their industry base decimated by foreign competition. Even mainstream economists, who once might have been described as blind advocates of free trade, are beginning to grapple with that fact.
And yet when the time came, Clinton seemed oddly unprepared for Trump’s onslaught on trade. Given the chance to speak first and set the terms of discussion, she opted instead for a sleepy Cliff’s Notes edition of her website’s policy section (jobs … family leave … profit-sharing something something). When Trump’s turn came, he wasted no time heading straight to his comfort zone on trade. “Thank you, Lester. Our jobs are fleeing the country,” he opened. From there, he doomspoke about Mexico, China, Ford abandoning the U.S. (no, it isn’t), struggling factory towns in Michigan and Ohio, and gutless politicians refusing to stand up to foreign powers. “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us,” he added, in case anybody had missed the point.
Clinton eventually tried to return the debate to more favorable ground for herself, pivoting to Trump’s plutocrat-friendly tax proposal, but ruined things with the sort of cringe-inducing catchphrase that’s unfortunately become a kind of trademark of her campaign. “The kind of plan that Donald has put forth would be trickle-down economics all over again. In fact, it would be the most extreme version, the biggest tax cuts for the top percent of the people in this country than we’ve ever had. I call it Trumped-up trickle-down.” Please don’t call it that. Nobody calls it that, or ever will.
And soon enough, Clinton was back in the cage, getting mauled over trade deals. It’s hard to capture the ferocity of the exchange in writing: Trump bullied his way through, at times barely letting her finish a stammering thought, but he also made one point that resonates with what so many distrustful working-class whites in the Midwest know to be true. Clinton has been a politician for a long time. Where was she on trade before this presidential race?
Trump: All you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving, they’re gone. And Hillary, I’ll just ask you this. You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now? For 30 years, you’ve been doing it, and now you're just starting to think of solutions—
Clinton: Well, actually—
Trump: Excuse me. I will bring back jobs. You can’t bring back jobs.
Clinton: Well, actually, I have thought about this quite a bit.
Trump: Yeah, for 30 years.
Clinton: And I have—well, not quite that long. I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and what can work again—
Trump: Well, he approved NAFTA, which is the single worst straight deal ever approved in this country.
It continued apace a bit later, with Trump on the offensive, and Clinton trying mostly unsuccessfully to slow him down by protesting facts:
Trump: You go to New England, you go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want, Secretary Clinton, and you will see devastation where manufacturing is down 30, 40, sometimes 50 percent. 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. 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.
Clinton: Well, that is just not accurate. I was against it once it was finally negotiated and the terms were laid out. I wrote about it—
Trump: You called it gold standard of trade deals. You said it’s the finest deal you've ever seen—
Trump: And then you heard what I said about it and all of a sudden you were against it.
Clinton: Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but those are not the facts. The facts are, I said I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated, which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn’t.
Trump: So is it President Obama’s fault?
Leave aside the fact that much of Trump’s thinking on how to fix our trade deals is utter nonsense. Leave aside that NAFTA probably had far less impact on the Rust Belt than trade with China. He had the emotional edge because, in the end, a good number of Americans have suffered as they’ve watched their jobs flow overseas. And it didn’t help that Clinton tried to fudge her past statements on TPP. It was bad.
And the truth is that as long as Clinton is talking about trade, she’s going to be losing. Her history on the subject is too checkered, her contortions too unbelievable. It’s not a coincidence that she only began to regain her footing once she managed to decisively steer the conversation elsewhere. She got back to taxes and pointed out that Trump had proposed a massive break for pass-through businesses like his own, which she called “the Trump loophole” (a slight improvement over “Trumped-up trickle down,” which she trotted out once more). She pulled Trump onto the subject of his unreleased tax returns and the debts he owes to foreign banks, questioning whether he’s paid any federal taxes, donated to charity, or earned what he claims. At that point, he began sputtering and rambling. She brought up Trump’s habit of refusing to pay the businesses he hires on his construction jobs, which inspired one of his most heartless sounding responses.
Clinton: I have met a lot of the people who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald. I’ve met dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, marble installers, drapery installers, like my dad was, who you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do. We have an architect in the audience who designed one of your clubhouses at one of your golf courses. It’s a beautiful facility. It immediately was put to use, and you wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you—
Trump: Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work. Which our country should do.
Through all this, a theme was developing, which Clinton somehow never managed to tie into a rhetorical bow: Donald Trump only cares about people like Donald Trump. And while I typically don’t like to play debate coach, it seems like the best thing Clinton could do on these issues—the only way to deal with her own weaknesses on trade—might be to turn the subject back to the demagogue himself. It could go like this:
Donald Trump will tell you he wants to help working families. He’ll tell you he wants to fight for better trade deals from China or Mexico. But the truth is, Donald Trump doesn’t care about you. He only cares about people like Donald Trump. He’s proposed big tax cuts for millionaires, like Donald Trump. He’s even proposed a trillion-dollar tax cut specifically for businesses that are structured like the Trump Organization. I call it “the Trump loophole.” He wants to eliminate the estate tax, which will benefit the children of millionaires, just like the Trumps. He talks about his great experience in business. But how can you trust a man who is notorious for stiffing the contractors who helped build his casinos? How can you can trust a man who runs his business that way, by stepping on small businesses? How can you trust a man who won’t even release his own tax returns, so we can figure out if he’s really a billionaire like he claims? How can you trust a man who talks about fighting for American workers, but makes his own ties in China?
That’s a rough, midnight draft. But I’m pretty it’d be a better way to start a debate than talking about profit-sharing.