On Tuesday evening, Americans and those tuning in from abroad were treated to a sort of political time capsule: a match-up between two politicians with long records of legislative and executive service who – while not passing up on opportunities to interrupt and jab at each other – engaged in a decidedly pre-Trump style of debate. 

The Democratic senator from Virginia Tim Kaine and the the Republican governor of Indiana  Mike Pence discussed issues such as defense, policing, immigration, social security, taxes and government spending along mostly familiar partisan lines. Pence, while defending his running mate, did not repeat the more controversial lines Donald Trump has used to overturn decades of political orthodoxy. He accused Kaine and his running mate Hillary Clinton of being “polished politicians,” which they are. But he was also polished. Given the contrast between the tame VP debate and the drama unfolding at the top of the ticket, Tuesday’s event is unlikely to matter much come November.

Even so, here is a rundown of the candidates’ takes on economic issues: jobs, taxes, growth, the national debt, social security and the influence of money in politics. In a sign that this debate was in fact the product of a different era, neither politician addressed trade – a passing mention or two aside.


Pence repeated his running mate’s line that Trump’s business experience is the antidote to an ailing economy, while Kaine challenged the idea that the economy is in such bad shape in the first place. 

To Pence, national unemployment and wage statistics aside, the people of Scranton, Pennsylvania and Fort Wayne, Indiana – his examples – feel “no different” from how they did during the recession. The culprits, which he pins on the Democrats, are “more taxes, more regulations, a war on coal and a failing healthcare reform known as Obamacare.” Pence advocated repealing the healthcare law, reducing regulation, lowering taxes and negotiating trade deals that “put the American worker first.” (See also, Is the Affordable Care Act Failing?)


For Kaine, Donald Trump’s business career is an example of getting rich “off the backs of the little guy. He outlined Clinton’s plan, beginning with infrastructure and manufacturing investment – particularly in the clean energy industry. The plan calls for debt-free college and tuition-free college for families making less than $125,000 a year. It advocates “equal pay for equal work” by women, as well as tax breaks for the middle class and small businesses. (See also, A Look at Hillary Clinton’s Economic Policies.)

Kaine pointed to an analysis by Moody’s economists saying that by the end of Trump’s presidency, “there are close to 3.5 million fewer jobs and the unemployment rate rises to as high as 7%, compared with below 5% today.” The same authors found that under a Clinton administration the economy would “create 10.4 million jobs, 3.2 million more than under current law.” Unemployment would fall to perhaps 3.7% before rising to 4.4% at the end of her term in 2020.

As for the differing assessments of Trump’s success as a businessman, Kaine pointed out that it’s impossible to be sure about Trump’s net worth without seeing his tax returns. Forbes, in an estimate released Tuesday, put it at $3.7 billion, down $800 million from the previous year’s estimate. Pence asserted that Trump has “built a business through hard times and good times” and created “tens of thousands” of jobs; CNNMoney estimated last month that he created “at least 34,000.” On the other hand, USA Today identified 3.500 lawsuits against Trump’s companies, alleging that he failed to pay those who worked for him. 

Taxes, Growth and the National Debt

Pence accused Kaine and Clinton of calling for “more of the same,” meaning higher taxes. In January, the conservative Tax Foundation estimated that Clinton’s plan would increase tax revenues by $498 billion on a static basis over ten years; accounting for an estimated 1% reduction in GDP growth, it would collect an additional $191 billion.

On September 29, the group estimated that Trump’s plan would reduce tax revenues by $10.14 trillion over the next decade, accounting for the increased economic growth. As long as this cut could be financed, GDP would grow an additional 11% over this time period, together with the addition of 5.3 million full-time equivalent jobs.

The debate’s moderator, CBSN anchor Elaine Quijano, pointed to an estimate by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) forecasting that neither ticket’s plan would reduce the approximately $19.6 trillion national debt. (See also, Clinton-Trump Debate: “Just Listen to What You Heard.”)

Following the release of Trump’s third tax plan on September 15, the fiscally hawkish organization estimated that his program would cause the $14 trillion portion of the national debt held by the public – of $19.5 trillion total – to swell from 77% to 105% of GDP in 2026. Clinton’s plan would cause it to rise to 86%. Under Clinton the deficit, which the CBO forecasts at $590 billion for fiscal 2016, would expand by $0.2 trillion over the next decade, while under Trump it would expand by $5.3 trillion.

The Tax Foundation sees the national debt swelling by ove $10.14 trillion over the next decade under Trump’s plan.

Regarding the national debt, Pence promised accelerated GDP growth, which would contribute to paying down the debt: “when we get back to 3.5 percent to 4 percent growth, which Donald Trump's plan will do, then we're going to have the resources to meet our nation's needs at home and abroad, and we're going to have the ability to bring down the national debt.”

As Clinton pointed out in the first presidential debate, Trump has apparently advocated renegotiating the U.S.'s sovereign debt. Trump denied that charge. While his statements on the subject are not clear or consistent, they appear to leave the door open to paying back less than the full amount borrowed.

Social Security

Quijano cited a CRFB estimate that Senator Kaine’s own Social Security benefits could be cut by as much as $7,500 per year when, 18 years from now, the program’s trust funds “run out of money” (Kaine will be 76 at that time).

Kaine called Social Security “one of the greatest programs that the American government has ever done” and promised that a Clinton administration would not pursue a “risky scheme” to privatize the program, but rather address shortfalls by adjsuting the payroll tax cap upward. Under the current system, only the first $118,500 of taxable income is subject to Social Security taxes. (See also, Introduction to Social Security.)

Pence called Kaine’s take “the old scare tactic” and said that if the country continues on the path Clinton advocates, America would be in a “mountain range of debt.” He promised that a Trump administration would continue to “meet the obligations of Medicare.”

Money and Politics

The discussion touched on perhaps the week’s biggest headline: a leak to the New York Times showed that Donald Trump took a $916 million tax loss that may have enabled him to avoid paying taxes for perhaps 18 years. Trump has refused to release his tax returns, saying that an IRS audit prevents him from doing so. Kaine pointed out that Richard Nixon released his returns while under audit, prompting him to question whether Trump could meet “Nixon’s standards.” He also said that Trump’s tax avoidance amounted to a failure to support American troops, veterans and teachers. (See also, Art of the “Steal”: How Trump Lost $916M and Avoided Tax.)

Debate also raged over the presidential candidates’ charitable foundations, with each suggesting the other engaged in pay-to-play activities that violated public trust. Pence said that the Clinton Foundation allowed the Clintons to take foreign political donations while Hillary was Secretary of State. He called this alleged behavior “pay to play politics.”

Kaine defended the work the Clinton Foundation does, pointing out that it receives better independent ratings than the American Red Cross (the former receives an “A” rating from Charity Watch, the latter an “A-”). (See also, Tale of Two Charities: Trump's Helps Trump, the Clintons' Is the Real Deal.)

Turning the “pay to play” accusation around, Kaine referenced Trump’s $25,000 donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was investigating Trump University. He also referenced a Washington Post report alleging that Trump used $20,000 in donations to the charity to purchase a 6-foot portrait of himself.

Where Was Trade?

Trump has made the negative impacts of trade deals on American workers the centerpiece of his campaign, and his discussion of those impacts was seen as the strongest aspect of a widely panned performance in the first debate.

Yet Pence only mentioned trade in passing, and Kaine ignored the subject entirely. Neither ever uttered the word “China.” Perhaps the reason is that both, “establishment” politicians to the bone, have long taken the view on trade common to Republicans and centrist Democrats like Kaine: that it is overall beneficial.

As recently as 2014 Pence tweeted, “Trade means jobs, but trade also means security. The time has come for all of us to urge the swift adoption of the Trans Pacific Partnership” (TPP), a proposed deal with 11 Pacific Rim countries – but not China – that Trump and Democratic primary challenger Bernie Sanders alike hammered Clinton for supporting. Having once called it the “gold standard” for trade deals, she now opposes it. (See also, Is the TPP Dead?)

Kaine is also guilty of being soft on trade. In July he told reporters, “I see much in the TPP draft – which has now been public and apparent to everybody for quite a while – that I like.” 

Come Wednesday morning, these polished politicians will almost certainly take the back seat again. Tuesday’s was the only scheduled vice-presidential debate, but two top-ticket debates remain.















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