After Sunday night’s sad and nasty US presidential debate it’s hard to focus on the relatively small exchange the candidates had about American steel. It came towards the end of a brawl that one commentator likened to watching a cobra and a mongoose fighting in a small cage.
After a flood of attention-grabbing — and even crotch-grabbing — allegations, the candidates turned their attention to steel. Here’s the exchange:
“It’s killing our steel workers and our steel companies,” Donald Trump said about cheap Chinese steel imports.
Hillary Clinton: “China is illegally dumping steel in the United States and Donald Trump is buying it to build his buildings, putting American steelworkers and plants out of business.”
I half-expected Trump to lean into his microphone, cock his head and retort: “Because I’m smart” — the same thing he said about paying no taxes.
It might be instructive then to ponder Trump’s explanation on the tax issue, because of what it might mean for steel. Regarding his taxes, he explained that he was not doing anything illegal, merely using America’s tax laws to his benefit, as any smart businessman, or citizen, would do.
He has said that an appalled society can, via the Democratic process, end unfair tax breaks and loopholes. He chided Clinton for not doing so in her 30-plus years of public life, effectively saying, “Stop me, Hillary, before I loss-carry-forward again!”
Transferring this thinking to steel and other trade matters would mean that America’s trade laws would have to change via new legislation or more-stringent enforcement of existing laws. And it seems both candidates are on board — good news for America’s steelmakers, but what some in Trump’s party might argue is bad news for America’s steel users.
America already has a lot of trade laws, some would say too many. But based on his tax logic, Trump would give us more to “Bring back steel” — a promise he made earlier in his campaign in Pittsburgh. He also said he would renegotiate America’s global trade deals.
Although light on specifics, Trump is touting a populist “America first” agenda, effectively pushing even Clinton to the left. She now disavows her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Her solution? The appointment of a “trade prosecutor” to protect US workers from global trade inequities, something she reiterated Sunday when talking about American steel.
Now that both parties’ candidates clearly want to put America first — and after a debate that made an entire nation feel icky — something big must be done, regardless of who is elected. That Big Something is a massive infrastructure program, the literal rebuilding of a crumbling America.
While absent from Sunday’s shameful debate, infrastructure rebuilding is the single most likely transforming initiative that could have bi-partisan support no matter who is president — an obvious way to bring the country together, and perhaps even restore true patriotism. And, by the way, it would greatly benefit steel.
Sunday’s debate — and all the sordid news that led up to it and now follows it — in an odd way brings hope. Politics in America has become so scrambled and bizarre that whoever is elected president will have to reach across the aisle and do whatever it takes to heal the country. And Trump, via his populist success, has made it okay for Republicans to support massive government initiatives when justified.
Given the dangerous wear-and-tear of our neglected infrastructure and the lengthy rip in America’s social fabric revealed by Trump’s candidacy, building new roads and bridges has become imperative, both physically and metaphorically.
It has been said you can’t spring back to the top — Make America Great Again — until you are able to push off from the bottom. We are at the bottom.
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