No, Mr. Trump, nothing made you smart. To illustrate: You think a VAT tax is a trade tariff.

Nick Confessore


9:20 PM ET

Just to pull back for a second here, you can see a part of Clinton’s strategy. She is not campaigning against him as a crazy man. She is campaigning against him as a traditional and, in her argument, flawed conservative Republican.

First Clinton and Trump Debate: Analysis, New York Times, live blogging of debate


Okay, all you regular Bear readers won’t be surprised that my most favoritist lines in the entire debate were, “We settled the suit with zero — with no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do.”  And, “I settled that lawsuit with no admission of guilt, but that was a lawsuit brought against many real estate firms, and it’s just one of those things.”

He settled that lawsuit with no admission of guilt.  Which is how lawsuits traditionally are settled.  It’s also why lawsuits of certain types are settled for more money than they otherwise would be; an admission of guilt gets you a settlement discount.

This particular type of lawsuit normally is settled with no admission of guilt–just a court decree in which the defendants promise to stop doing what they were not guilty of doing.  An admission of guilt would defeat the main purpose of settling: minimizing harm to the reputation of the business and its owners or executives.

Those lines of Trump’s last night, stupifyingly stupid as they were, did have some tough competition for my designation of The Best.  After all, there was that protestation by Trump that his cheering for the housing-bubble collapse is “called business, by the way.”  And that an architect Clinton mentioned who was among the thousands of workers and small-business owners whom Trump has refused to pay after they’s completed the work for him “maybe” “didn’t do a good job and [Trump] was unsatisfied with his work.”

And that Trump’s never paying any federal income taxes “makes [him] smart.”

Actually, nothing yet has made Trump smart.  I think he was referring to his tax lawyers and accountants.  Who are very smart but are not running for president.

I was absolutely delighted that Clinton, rather than just repeating the generic refrain that Trump is the first major-party presidential nominee in four decades to not release his tax returns, and saying only that they probably would show that he has paid no or almost no federal income taxes throughout most of his business life, also told the viewers that he’s probably hiding much more than that: international business partners and lenders who are propping up his real estate projects and that this would constitute major conflict of interest for a president, in foreign policy, regulatory policy and tax policy.

I hope she continues to hit hard on this, with more specificity about who these people likely are (e.g., Russian billionaires) and what their interests, as opposed to our interests, are.

But I also was thrilled with something else she did—what Nick Confessore noted in real time last night: a key part of Clinton’s strategy last night was to campaign against Trump as an exaggerated form of traditional conservative on fiscal and regulatory policy, and to illustrate best as she could in a couple of two-minute answers (responses to Trump, if I recall correctly) how that didn’t work when George Bush tried it and instead lead to economic disaster and spiraling inequality—and that’s probably not what most people who want change have in mind.

For one thing, it’s not change; it’s retro.

You. Go. Girl!

I wish she’d done even more of it, but obviously there were tight time constraints.  I’m betting that she will now aggressively move this ball down the field to a touchdown. With ads, local TV news interviews, and … rallies.

The overwhelming consensus—and I think it is accurate—is that while she clearly won last night, it wasn’t a knockout.  But I think there’s more to it than that.  I think she reset her campaign last night, and she no longer should shy away from holding rallies where she gives a thorough stump speech on economic, fiscal and regulatory policy—and notes that Trump’s billionaire backers who likely would be his puppeteers during a Trump administration are not exactly pushing change of the Rust Belt blue-collar-worker sort.  Well, they are, but the change they want is in the wrong direction.

And one more thing.  Well, two more.  First, when Clinton told Trump during the discussion on the TPP, “Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts,” she was not referring to his accurate claim that Clinton had said when helping to negotiate the pact that it was “the gold standard” of trade treaties but instead his statement that once in office she would retreat from her promise not to try to push the deal through.  It was a memorized line that would have been perfect had she saved it for later in the debate but was not an apt comment on that, since Trump was speculating about what she would do, not stating a fact. It was, in my opinion, her worst moment last night. But pundits are mischaracterizing what she was denying.

She said what she back when she was helping to negotiate the TPP.  She wasn’t denying that; she was reaffirming her promise made late in the primary season and again in her convention speech to not push and not approve the pact unless the changes surrounding two controversial planks in the treaty are changed.

The second thing is this: There seems to be a consensus developing among pundits that Clinton came off as too wonkish about economic and fiscal and regulatory policy.  Roger Cohen argues in the NYT this morning that she should not have mentioned what many economists are saying about the likely effects of her plan, and the likely (certain, but okay) effects of his.  That’s just wrong.  That’s exactly what she should do.

She should, after last night, not fear references to economists.  She should tell the public who exactly—by which I mean, what exactly—Trump’s economic advisers are, and hers are.  She should do this in two-minute ads, on TV and on the Internet, and at rallies, and in interviews.

The problem with her wonkish persona has been that it has not demonstrated a desire for the type of dramatic change that so much of the electorate so badly wants.  But discussing who (what) her economic-policy advisers are would do that.  And discussing who Trump’s are would, well ….

And there’s another reason why she should not shy from demonstrating knowledge: Trump is wrong about key facts that the public doesn’t know he’s wrong about.  Paul Krugman posted a blog post this morning illustrating one example.  He said he was surprised when early in the debate, during the discussion on trade, and Trump said China is manipulating its currency to help its exports to the U.S. and hurt our manufacturing sector, Clinton didn’t update him, and the viewers, that because of certain problems that have developed with the Chinese economy, China no longer is keeping its currency artificially low and is instead actually trying to raise the value of its currency.  Trump’s claim is five years out of date.

I knew that!  I read Krugman’s blog regularly, so I knew that!  But doesn’t Clinton also know that?  I expected her to correct Trump on that.  I don’t know why she didn’t, but I think maybe it was for fear of sounding too wonkish.  If so, that’s just silly.

And then, as Krugman also notes, there was that bizarre babbling about Mexico’s VAT tax.  Krugman writes:

There was this, on Mexico:

“Let me give you the example of Mexico. They have a VAT tax. We’re on a different system. When we sell into Mexico, there’s a tax. When they sell in — automatic, 16 percent, approximately. When they sell into us, there’s no tax. It’s a defective agreement. It’s been defective for a long time, many years, but the politicians haven’t done anything about it.”*

Gah. A VAT is basically a sales tax. It is levied on both domestic and imported goods, so that it doesn’t protect against imports — which is why it’s allowed international trade rules, and not considered a protectionist trade policy. I get that Trump is not an economist — hoo boy, is he not an economist — but this is one of his signature issues, so you might have expected him to learn a few facts.

Lordy, folks.  I guess I can’t blame Clinton for being speechless on that.  I couldn’t figure out how a VAT tax—a sales tax (I know what it is)—has anything to do with trade balance.  But his statement that we don’t have a VAT tax is, for relevant purposes, false.  We have a sales tax in most states in this country.  So what? Americans pay their state’s sales tax on purchases of things made in Mexico.  And Mexicans pay their VAT tax on things made or grown here.

I think Clinton just couldn’t follow why Trump thinks Mexico’s VAT tax impacts trade.  I mean, how could she foresee that he thinks a VAT tax is a … trade tariff?  And figuring that out instantly is too much to have expected from her. (Who could have?  It struck me, and probably everyone else watching who knows what a VAT tax is, as just baffling.)

But it provides a beautiful, brand new example of this man’s profound ignorance of basic things that a president needs to know.  Sure, most Americans don’t know what a VAT tax is, and isn’t—the latter being a trade tariff.  But this man wants to direct international trade between this country and others.  Clinton should tell the public that Trump thinks a sales tax is an international trade tariff.

At heart the “wonkishness” issue turns on when, and how, Clinton should be wonkish.  As simple explanation that VAT taxes are not trade tariffs, and are sales taxes that apply to all goods wherever they’re made or grown or assembled—and that Trump should know that, but doesn’t—makes another point, as well: Trump has no business experience whatsoever in manufacturing or in anything else involving international trade.  Unless that new hotel of his (and his investors’/business partners’/lenders’) was manufactured outside this country.

On Mars, maybe.


*Quotation marks inadvertently omitted, originally.  Corrected 9/27 at 3:14 p.m.