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The din of debate over Donald Trump’s perceived misogyny and Hillary Clinton’s alleged corruption has left little room for airing the policy ideas of the White House hopefuls. But once the election is over the victor’s proposals will leap to the centre of attention.
What the two candidates offer is in some ways a choice between a closed and open US. Mr Trump’s “America first” slogan captures his signature pledges to restore prosperity and security by tightening US borders and turning his back on international trade pacts.
Mrs Clinton is more wary of free trade than she once was, but her “stronger together” catchphrase repudiates Mr Trump’s nativism. It reflects the former secretary of state’s leanings towards engagement with the world and a rejection of her rival’s attacks on women, Muslims, Mexicans and others.
Mrs Clinton’s policies fall somewhere between the centrism of former president Bill Clinton and the progressivism of her former rival for the Democratic nomination Bernie Sanders, who pulled her leftward in their battle in the primaries. They represent a deliberate effort to walk a fine line as she strives to keep two different factions of the Democratic party together.
Mr Trump has touted ideas that have changed multiple times and defy conventional classification. He has spurned Republican orthodoxy by promoting protectionism, criticising big business and announcing plans that would send the national debt soaring. But his positions on healthcare, climate change and Wall Street are classically Republican.
Mr Trump has condemned the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact as a “horrible deal” and said he would announce his intention to renegotiate or withdraw from the Nafta pact with Mexico and Canada on his first day in office. He has also pledged to declare China a currency manipulator and threatened to impose punitive tariffs on some Chinese and Mexican imports.
Mrs Clinton has criticised the TPP, reversing her stance on a deal that she had travelled the globe supporting as secretary of state. But her broader approach to trade is less hostile than Mr Trump’s. She stresses the need for trade pacts, but says they must be “smart and fair”.
Mr Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the US-Mexico border is the symbolic heart of his hardline stance on immigration. He wants to deport approximately 11m unauthorised immigrants, who are mostly Hispanic, and has said Mexico is sending “rapists” to the US. He has also proposed a ban on Muslim immigration, inspired by terrorism fears.
Mrs Clinton’s ultraliberal stance is at the other end of the spectrum. She has strongly criticised her rival for “condemning whole categories of people” and sought to court the Hispanic vote by committing to comprehensive reforms that would give unauthorised immigrants a path to full citizenship.
Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton have made expensive promises that mean neither would reverse the growth of the US’s nearly $20tn national debt (including future social security payments), according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Eschewing fiscal conservatism, the Republican’s plans would add $5.3tn to the debt over the next decade. That reflects a sharp drop in tax revenue and only a modest cut in net spending, as savings from Obamacare and Medicaid are offset by increases in spending on defence and childcare.
Mrs Clinton’s plans would increase the debt by $200bn over a decade, the CRFB estimates. She would raise more revenue from personal taxation, but would also oversee a splurge of spending on college education, paid family leave, infrastructure and healthcare.
Mr Trump is proposing to slash the top rate of corporate income tax from 35 per cent to 15 per cent and would allow companies to deduct the cost of investments from their taxable income. He also wants to deter tax-cutting cross-border deals known as inversions by imposing a one-off 10 per cent tax on companies’ offshore cash, which currently goes untaxed.
Mrs Clinton has not proposed a change to the headline tax rate. She has taken a tough line against inversions, vowing to impose an “exit tax” on companies doing the deals. Her other proposals for big business are modest. She has championed her plans to help small businesses, which include a catch-all tax cut for expenses and simplified tax filing requirements.
Mr Trump would deliver the biggest tax cuts to high-income earners in both dollar terms and as a percentage of income, says the Tax Policy Center. The top rate of tax would come down from 39.6 per cent as the Republican reduced the number of tax brackets from seven to three: 12 per cent, 25 per cent and 33 per cent. He also wants to let families deduct childcare costs from their taxable income.
Mrs Clinton wants the rich to pay more tax and has proposed three specific measures. As a result the highest income 1 per cent of households would account for more than 90 per cent of an expected increase in tax revenue, according to the Tax Policy Center. Other measures, such as an expanded child tax credit, would help poorest households the most.
Wall Street reform
Mr Trump has tangled with banks as a businessman and called them “total killers” in the primary campaign but he has since softened his tone. He has pledged to dismantle the post-crisis Dodd-Frank reforms, which banks revile and blame for stifling lending. He has also criticised his rival for taking donations from Wall Street.
Mrs Clinton has not echoed the calls of leftwingers to break up big banks but she has praised Dodd-Frank and called for it to be expanded to cover the lightly regulated shadow banking sector. However, the leaked transcripts of closed-door speeches to Goldman Sachs suggest she is more sceptical about Dodd-Frank’s benefits than she has let on.
Both candidates agree on the urgent need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in fixing America’s dilapidated transport infrastructure.
Mr Trump has lamented the US’s “third world” airports and transit systems and promised to renew them with a programme even larger than his rival’s. But he has been vague about the numbers. He has proposed to fund it partly by selling government infrastructure bonds.
Mrs Clinton advocates a five-year $275bn infrastructure plan, which she would fund through reforming US taxation of global earnings to tap corporate cash piles overseas. Most of the funds would go to direct public investment but $25bn would go towards an infrastructure bank.
Mr Trump has adopted the Republican mantra that President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms must be “repealed and replaced”. He has seized on forecasts of rising insurance premiums to bolster the argument that Obamacare is failing. He has not set out a comprehensive alternative but says he would knock down the walls between state-based markets to encourage competition.
Mrs Clinton has celebrated Obamacare for delivering health insurance to 20m Americans who had lacked it but acknowledges that it needs some fixes. She wants the White House to have the authority to block unreasonable premium increases and cap prescription drug costs. She also supports creating a government-run healthcare plan as an alternative to private insurance.
Mr Trump has not played on the “culture war” issues that animate some conservative Republicans. Although he has consistently opposed same-sex marriage, he told the LGBT community after a massacre at a gay nightclub this summer that “I will fight for you”. He said the same thing in a speech at the Republican convention, drawing unexpected cheers.
Mrs Clinton has not sought to use gay issues against her rival but she supports same-sex marriage, having dropped her opposition to it in 2013 as public opinion shifted. She says the US needs a Supreme Court that stands up for the rights of LGBT Americans, noting that too many are targeted for harassment and violence.
Energy and climate change
Mr Trump denies that emissions of greenhouse gases caused by human activity are warming the planet, saying instead that climate patterns are changing naturally. He has called climate change a “hoax” cooked up by China. He has vowed to unleash the full force of fossil fuel energy and put laid off coal miners back to work.
Mrs Clinton says climate change is a serious threat and supports Mr Obama’s efforts to cut power-sector emissions. She backs an accelerated transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Although she called for tight restrictions on fracking during the Democratic primary, a leaked email has suggested she is not so hostile.