Presidential debates command the largest audience of any political event in American life. It’s the only time you have the viewpoints of both parties on one stage at the same time. And last night’s highly anticipated Trump-Clinton affair probably broke all viewing records.
These debates are not just about jockeying for position in the general election; they are important markers in how we understand and decipher politics far into the future. What gets emphasized and what gets left out really matters. And therefore, Hillary Clinton attacking the false premise that government is just like a business and should be run like one was the biggest moment with the most long-lasting implications in recent memory. And it probably wouldn’t have happened without Donald Trump facing her behind the other podium.
The first half-hour of the debate could have been contested between any mainstream Democrat and any mainstream Republican plucked out of any state legislature or congressional district in America. While Trump trashed over-regulation and tax-and-spend liberals increasing the national debt, Clinton attacked Trump as a typical business conservative, giving huge tax cuts to the wealthy and hoping that they create a few jobs for everyone else.
This was a decided tactical shift for Clinton. It’s now campaign lore that the Clinton campaign made the deliberate decision to peel Trump away from the Republican Party, labeling him as something wholly new in American politics, too extreme even for the GOP rank-and-file. That’s not how things played out in the debate. Throughout the general election, Clinton has been attacking Trump on his personal faults — comments about Mexicans and Muslims and women. But last night, Trump, was not an alien force, but a rich purveyor of “trickle-down economics all over again.”
If that familiar terrain were all Clinton trod last night, it would have been notable but not significant. But she used the opening that only Trump could give her — his long and checkered history as a businessman — to take on how Republicans believe government and the economy should work.
For the last year Trump has viewed the office of the presidency through the same perspective as a real estate developer trying to maximize profits — making deals on behalf of the nation, outflanking the competition, making America win. That’s why trade factors so heavily in his thinking — those are “deals” where he can get in a room and beat the stuffing out of China or some other adversary.
So Clinton, in addition to hammering the standard Republican policies, focused on Trump’s business record. He “rooted for the housing crisis” in 2006; he “started his business with $14 million borrowed from his father”; he keeps his tax returns secret because he likely doesn’t pay any taxes. And in the most devastating section, Clinton noted how many workers have been stiffed by Trump’s businesses, the very little guys he champions in speeches. “I’m certainly relieved that my late father never did business with you,” Clinton said. “He provided a good middle-class life for us, but the people he worked for, he expected the bargain to be kept on both sides.”
Remarkably, Trump didn’t deny any of this. He’s running, in fact, to be a ruthless businessman on behalf of the same people he’s spent a career gouging in the eyes. Rooting for economic collapse to get an advantage in scooping up foreclosed homes at a discount is “called business, by the way,” he said. Not paying taxes “makes me smart.” And not paying people you hire after they do the prescribed work just means “maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied… which our country should do too.”
Here, a real ideological difference rose to the surface. Clinton expressed a fairness vision, while Trump manifestly made a virtue of unfairness, as long as Americans win out. This is the blind corner that conservatives walk into when they insist that government should be run like a business. Trump is the logical extension of what they mean: America should cheat creditors, use its dominance to rip off little guys and bully our way to prosperity without any social responsibility or sense of ethics.
That’s a ridiculous view of the function of government, which should not be weaponized the way Trump seeks. Government does not exist to turn a profit by any underhanded means. Government does not welch on its obligations to make a quick buck. Using the powers of government the way a Civil War re-enactor would use the cannon he has pointed at his enemy doesn’t automatically lead to good outcomes. “Sometimes there’s not a direct transfer of skills from business to government,” Clinton said. “Sometimes what happened in business would be really bad for government.”
It’s worth emphasizing those lines. As president, Hillary Clinton’s husband focused relentlessly on “reinventing government,” vowing that “the era of big government is over.” That’s a business-centric view of government, focused on efficiency rather than meeting public needs. A second Clinton presidency that severs this confused link between business and government suddenly opens up all kinds of possibilities. The deficit becomes less of a straitjacket. Policies that break up big corporations and mandate competition, even at the expense of long-sought efficiency, become easier to sell. Employment and economic liberty take precedence over whether some agency is getting the proper return on investment.
I’m sure Bernie Sanders fans on the left will argue that Clinton is an imperfect messenger for this vision. That’s true to an extent. But she was willing to send the message, at the highest level, on the biggest stage. It’s the kind of statement that can outlive the immediate moment and feed a new style of thinking about what government is and what it can be. When you run government like a business, you get businessmen willing to abuse government to get ahead. It’s about time somebody said it.