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Presidential debate season is officially over, and critical policy questions that directly impact millions of Americans remain unasked just 19 days before the election.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump met last night in Las Vegas, Nevada for the final presidential debate, which was likely the last chance for the candidates to discuss specific policy issues face-to-face before November 8. Just as in the previous two presidential debates this year, moderator Chris Wallace chose to focus questions on a handful of familiar topics. Even within the context of six pre-announced debate topics, Wallace could have asked questions on major policy issues that deserve thoughtful and substantive prime-time discussion from the presidential candidates, like affordable health care, climate change, or tax plans.
But that didn’t happen. When debate discussions did manage to turn to policy specifics on critical topics like reproductive rights or gun violence prevention, Wallace didn’t ask necessary follow-up questions or offer clarifications on the facts. (Prior to the debate, Wallace announced his intention to be a debate timekeeper rather than fact-checker.)
All in all, last night’s debate largely covered the same ground as the previous two debates, both in topics discussed and in tone. If any of the three debates had focused more aggressively on what’s truly at stake -- what voters have said they wanted asked, what people actually believe is most important for their own families and communities -- the questions in this debate cycle would have looked very different. And the answers could speak for themselves.
Let’s explore just how hard the moderators dropped the ball.
This year, the United States began the process of resettling its first climate refugees. A bipartisan group of top military experts warned that climate change presents a “strategically-significant risk to U.S. national security and international security.” While Clinton wants to build on President Obama’s climate change accomplishments, Trump wants to “cancel” the historic Paris climate agreement, “rescind” the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, and dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency -- and he’s even called global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
Several tragic mass shootings -- including the single deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, at the LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando, FL, in June -- have shaken the nation since the beginning of the election season. Gun deaths in the United States, both in instances of mass shootings and in more common day-to-day violence, vastly outnumber gun deaths in other Western democracies -- so much so that the American Medical Association has declared gun violence a public health crisis. And Americans are overwhelmingly ready for lawmakers to take action. Seventy-two percent of voters say gun policy is “very important” in determining their vote this year, and an astonishing 90 percent of voters -- representing both Democrats and Republicans -- think that strengthening background check requirements for firearm purchases is a good place to start, as does Clinton. Trump recently told the National Rifle Association -- which has endorsed him -- that he opposes expanding background checks.
Moderators failed to ask a single question about specific policies for gun violence prevention in the first two presidential debates, and they failed to ask a question about background check policies specifically in any debate. In the final debate, Wallace asked about gun policies in the context of the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision about the scope of the Second Amendment, but he failed to follow up when Trump skirted questions about the case and about his specific positions on several gun policies like his opposition to an assault weapons ban and his oft-repeated false claim that "gun-free" zones are responsible for public mass shootings. The entire exchange lasted just under five minutes.
Though seven in 10 Americans support legal abortion and one in three American women report having had an abortion procedure, states have enacted 288 anti-choice laws since 2010. These laws are creating a crisis by preventing women from low-income families -- many already parents who are struggling to keep families afloat -- from receiving the health care services they need. Some evidence even suggests greater numbers of women are contemplating dangerous self-induced abortions due to a lack of access to care. Trump has espoused support for these types of restrictive laws, and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), wants to “send Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history.”
But moderators did not ask a question about the candidates’ stances on reproductive rights until the final debate -- when Chris Wallace asked about Roe v. Wade. Again, Trump repeatedly lied about abortion policy, and the misinformation was left hanging as Wallace pivoted to a new topic after about five minutes of discussion.
How about tax policies? Tax rates are a critical issue that directly affect all Americans, and the candidates’ respective tax policy proposals could not differ more. Clinton’s plan would benefit low- and middle-income families most and hike tax rates only for the wealthiest earners and for corporations. Trump’s plan has been called “a multitrillion-dollar gift to the rich” that “screws the middle class,” and has been panned even by conservative economists and The Wall Street Journal. One analysis concluded that Clinton’s plan “trims deficits,” while Trump’s plan could add $6.2 trillion to the national debt. These numbers directly impact the short-term and long-term financial health of families and communities, and 84 percent of voters say the economy is “very important” in deciding their vote in 2016.
Substantive questions about the candidates’ specific tax plans were missing from the debates, though Trump still managed to lie about his tax proposals on several occasions. When the candidates mentioned their tax plans briefly in the final debate when asked about the economy, Wallace again lived up to his promise not to fact-check.
A record number of anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year, and LGBT students face significantly more violence than their peers, but the debates did not include a single question about policy positions related to LGBT equality.
About 70 percent of today’s college graduates leave school with student loans, and more than 43 million Americans currently have student debt. This economic squeeze is changing how Americans plan their families, buy homes, and spend their money. Clinton has responded by making college affordability a signature issue of her campaign, while Trump’s newly described plan could “explode the student debt crisis.” Neither candidate was asked to address this issue either.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world -- we account for 5 percent of the world’s population but a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Inmate organizers recently launched what could be the nation’s largest prison strike to draw attention to deplorable prison conditions. The majority of Americans want to see changes to a federal prison system they believe is “too large, too expensive, and too often incarcerating the wrong people.” Moderators didn’t ask about criminal justice reform policies at all.
The presidential debates instead largely focused on statements made on the campaign trail, whichever offensive comments Trump had made most recently, and -- again, always -- Hillary Clinton’s email use as secretary of state. Viewers might now know a lot about these topics -- or at least what each candidate has to say about them -- while still having very little information on the candidates’ starkly contrasting policy positions on issues with direct and immediate consequences to citizens’ daily lives.
Americans relied on moderators to raise the questions they think about every day, to help them understand how the next president can help ensure that their families are safe, secure, and set up to thrive. It’s a shame the debates did not deliver.
Moderator Falsely Claims Social Security And Medicare Are “Going To Run Out Of Money” Without Major Benefit Cuts
Fox News host and 2016 presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace used the last question of the presidential debate to push both the Democratic and Republican nominees into accepting a past GOP proposal -- harmful cuts to vital entitlement programs as part of a national debt-reducing “grand bargain.”
Wallace opened his question by falsely claiming that “the biggest driver of our debt is entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare while falsely equating the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) analyses of Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s tax and economic policy proposals. Wallace claimed that the CRFB “has looked at both” the Trump and Clinton tax plans and concluded “neither of [them] has a serious plan” to address “the fact” that Medicare and Social Security are going to run out of money in the next two decades:
CHRIS WALLACE: The one last area that I want to get into with you in this debate is the fact that the biggest driver of our debt is entitlements, which is 60 percent of all federal spending. Now the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has looked at both of your plans and they say neither of you has a serious plan that is going to solve the fact that Medicare is going to run out of money in the 2020s, Social Security is going to run out of money in the 2030s, and at that time recipients are going to take huge cuts in their benefits. So, in effect, the final question I want to ask you in this regard is, and let me start with you, Mr. Trump. Would President Trump make a deal to save Medicare and Social Security that included both tax increases and benefit cuts -- in effect, in effect a grand bargain on entitlements?
WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, same question, because at this point Social Security and Medicare are going to run out -- the trust funds are going to run out of money. Will you as president entertain -- will you consider a grand bargain, a deal, that includes both tax increases and benefit cuts to try to save both programs?
Wallace’s question ignores three important points.
First, the CRFB did not score the Clinton and Trump tax plans as roughly equivalent in terms of their impact on the debt and deficit. According to a September 22 analysis from the organization, Trump’s economic agenda will create $5.3 trillion in new debt accumulation over the next decade -- more than 25 times more new debt that Clinton’s more balanced plan. University of Michigan economist and New York Times columnist Justin Wolfers tweeted a chart from CRFB showing how Trump’s plan would “explode” the national debt beyond current projections, whereas Clinton’s proposal leaves it “basically unchanged”:
Here's how Clinton's plans alter the debt trajectory. (It's hard to see; it's basically unchanged). And you'll see Trump's plan explode it. pic.twitter.com/UCayFwDupM
— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) October 20, 2016
Second, as economist Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote on Twitter, Medicare and Social Security “DO NOT run out of money!!” because they are paid for by secured trust funds and specific permanent tax provisions. Bernstein also noted that the Affordable Care Act, which Trump vowed to repeal during the debate, has actually extended Medicare “solvency by 11 years.” Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research added that, because the program can only spend money from a protected trust fund, “Social Security can’t legally drive the debt.”
Third, Wallace’s supposed solution to avoid benefit cuts for Social Security and Medicare recipients in the 2030s is to start implementing those cuts today. As New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has noted many times, “these proposals would be really bad public policy” and would harshly impact low-income Americans who rely on the programs for retirement security. The only reason Social Security faces a long-term revenue shortfall is because the payroll tax that funds it is only applied to the first $118,500 of individual earnings. If the payroll tax cap was lifted to include more taxable earnings, the program could bring in more revenue and be funded through the end of the century. As Krugman notes, “while most Americans love Social Security, the wealthy don’t. Two years ago a pioneering study of the policy preferences of the very wealthy found many contrasts with the views of the general public; as you might expect, the rich are politically different from you and me. But nowhere are they as different as they are on the matter of Social Security.”
Wallace’s decision to relitigate the failed “grand bargain” from 2011 wasn’t the only example of the Fox News host using the debate as a forum to push a conservative policy agenda. However, his specific fearmongering and misleading framing of the debt and entitlements does vindicate economic policy experts’ many concerns about him moderating the debate in the first place.
Fox News host and presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace falsely blamed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) -- commonly referred to as “the stimulus” -- for creating a historically sluggish economic recovery, a frequent charge from right-wing media outlets that bears no resemblance to reality.
During a line of questioning designed to undermine Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Wallace alleged that Clinton’s economic agenda closely resembles “the Obama stimulus plan in 2009,” which he falsely claimed was responsible for “the slowest GDP [gross domestic product] growth since 1949”:
CHRIS WALLACE: I want to pursue your plan, because in many ways it is similar to the Obama stimulus plan in 2009, which has led to the slowest GDP growth since 1949.
DONALD TRUMP: Correct.
CHRIS WALLACE. Thank you, sir. You told me, in July, when we spoke that the problem is that President Obama didn't get to do enough in what he was trying to do with the stimulus. So is your plan basically more, even more of the Obama stimulus?
Right-wing media outlets, including Fox News, have long charged that the 2009 stimulus package was costly and ineffective, and they regularly promote the fantasy that the roughly $800 billion rescue package actually hurt the American economy. Fox News has portrayed the very concept of stimulating the economy through targeted government investments as a “distraction,” Fox host Bill O’Reilly has falsely claimed that food stamps have no economic value, and Fox anchor Megyn Kelly has been derisively referring to the rescue package as “the so-called stimulus” for years.
Contrary to Wallace’s misleading talking point, economists like Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman generally believe that the stimulus package was too small and too focused on tax cuts instead of targeted spending. (Tax cuts actually don’t stimulate the economy very effectively.) In a July 2014 New York Times column, economist Justin Wolfers noted that 36 of 37 economists surveyed by the University of Chicago’s Initiative on Global Markets agreed that the stimulus was directly responsible for lowering the unemployment rate, and 25 agreed that the economic benefits of the law exceeded its costs.
Wallace’s willingness to use the debate stage as a forum to promote right-wing misinformation was one of the primary reasons that Media Matters questioned the decision to include him as a moderator.
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt called on Fox News host Chris Wallace to base “his questions on budget reality” during the “debt and entitlements” portion of the third and final presidential debate that he will moderate tonight -- the first general election debate ever moderated by a Fox personality. Given Wallace’s track record of parroting right-wing media budget hysteria from his anchor desk at Fox News, it is possible that the moderator will fall short of what Leonhardt characterized as his “reputation as a serious journalist.”
Fox News’ Chris Wallace has selected “Debt and entitlements,” “Immigration,” “Economy,” “Supreme Court,” “Foreign hot spots,” and “Fitness to be President” as the topics for the final presidential debate, which he will moderate on October 19. But the fact that neither “the environment” nor “energy” are among the topics would not excuse Wallace if he fails to ask a question about climate change.
Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing our country and the planet, and it’s far more than strictly an environmental or energy issue. As Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican Governor of New Jersey who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, has said, climate change “has very serious implications for our country from a national security point of view, from an economic point of view and a health point of view.”
The nonpartisan Open Debate Coalition recently launched a petition urging Wallace to ask the questions on the coalition’s website that have received the most votes from the public. A question about how the presidential candidates would address climate change currently has the fourth-most votes, trailing only two questions about guns and one about Social Security.
If Wallace refuses to ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump about climate change, it will mark the culmination of a stunning media failure. It would mean that presidential debate moderators failed to address climate change in two consecutive election cycles, after climate questions were asked in two presidential debates and the vice presidential debate in 2008. Even worse, it would mean that Trump avoids fielding a single debate question on climate change during the entire presidential campaign, spanning 14 primary and general election debates over the last 14 months.
Climate change has far-reaching impacts and ramifications, as Whitman explained, so there are many ways Wallace could weave it into most -- if not all -- of the topics he’s selected. Here are five questions that he could ask:
Possible Debate Question: Studies show that climate change worsened the extreme drought in Syria that contributed to the Syrian refugee crisis, and that the effects of climate change on crop yields will drive millions of Mexicans to seek entry into the United States in the coming decades. Will you incorporate climate change into your immigration policies, and if so, how?
Possible Debate Question: A 2016 survey of 750 top economists found that climate change is now the single greatest threat to the global economy. What will you do to protect our economy from the effects of climate change?
Topic: Supreme Court
Possible Debate Question: Following a 2007 Supreme Court ruling and a scientific assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA is legally required to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change under the Clean Air Act. Will you implement the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the EPA’s emissions reduction strategy, and if not, how will your administration fulfill the Supreme Court’s mandate to cut greenhouse gas pollution?
Topic: Foreign Hot Spots
Possible Debate Question: The Pentagon has determined that climate change will “aggravate existing problems -- such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions -- that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries.” To what extent do you believe climate-related risks should be integrated into military planning?
Topic: Fitness To Be President
Possible Debate Question: The scientific community is nearly unanimous in saying that global warming is happening and caused by burning fossil fuels, yet many politicians refuse to acknowledge this is the case. Will you listen to the scientists on climate change, and do you believe that those who refuse to do so are unfit for our nation’s highest office?
Evening cable news programs rarely discuss college affordability issues, and when they do, they even more rarely feature guests who present relevant, recent personal experiences. In a recent analysis of evening cable news programming, Media Matters found an apparent lack of student or borrower guests participating in these cable news conversations relating to college affordability, while the majority of guests were white, male, and 35 or older. By limiting the demographic diversity of guests, media are shutting out the voices of those most affected by these issues.
In a recent study, Media Matters analyzed an entire year of evening cable news programming and found that Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC together spent just 2 hours and 22 minutes airing substantial discussion of topics related to college affordability. In those discussions, networks invited disproportionately white, male guests who were 35 or older. Among 127 total guests participating in these discussions, just 6 percent were identified as current students and only 2 percent discussed their own current or recent experiences borrowing money to pay for college. In short, the voices dominating evening cable news seem to not be those of the individuals most affected by today’s skyrocketing college costs or unmanageable student loan burdens. By inviting fewer women, young people, people of color, students, and borrowers, to participate in these segments, networks are limiting the substance of college affordability discussions and depriving viewers of an accurate picture of college costs and student debt.
Across all three networks, 58 percent of guests participating in discussions about college affordability were men. However, research shows that women are more likely to take out student loans than men, and that women need college degrees to access employment opportunities more than men do. The gender pay gap also makes getting out of debt all the more difficult for women, in particular for black and Hispanic women, even as women dedicate a higher percentage of their earnings toward paying off that debt.
Seventy-three percent of cable evening news guests discussing college affordability topics were white. Twenty percent of guests were black, 6 percent were Hispanic, and 4 percent were Asian-American. (Two percent of guests were coded for an undetermined race, and multiracial guests were coded for multiple races or ethnicities as applicable.)
Yet black and Hispanic students, borrowers, and families experience the financial strain of attending college more acutely at every step in the process -- from the initial decision about what type of higher education to pursue, to borrowing and making loan payments, to struggling for financial security decades after college attendance. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources for financial aid, while black and low-income students, in particular, are more likely to take out loans to pay for school and to have higher loan balances. Greater financial strain while attending college can also lead black and Hispanic students to drop out at higher rates, which in turn impacts their ability to find employment and pay down even small amounts of debt.
More than three-quarters of cable evening news guests discussing college affordability were 35 or older -- and 40 percent were 51 or older (of those guests whose ages were publicly available). Across all three networks, only 6 percent of guests discussing college affordability issues were identified as students, and only 2 percent -- three guests across all networks for the entire year studied -- discussed their own personal or recent experiences borrowing to pay for higher education.
Though it is possible that more guests are currently paying off student or parent education loans or perhaps are enrolled in college currently than were coded in Media Matters’ analysis, those guests didn’t talk about such experiences during their appearances. Overwhelmingly, the discussions of topics like rising college costs, borrowing to pay for school, and student loan burdens did not include guests sharing relevant, first-hand experiences paying for college in recent years.
Yet study after study highlights the “many crises of student loans,” detailing how today’s complex system of higher education and the debt-based system most use to pay for it are shutting out low-income students, veterans, and other groups of Americans who are often already marginalized in media coverage, and leaving those who attend college but do not earn degrees and students who attend for-profit colleges even further behind. Perhaps greater overall representation of students and borrowers -- or better, students or borrowers from specific groups that are feeling the financial squeeze of student debt most -- would give evening cable news viewers a more complete understanding of how college affordability policy proposals might work and who they might affect.
A July poll from Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of registered voters say education is a “very important” issue for their 2016 presidential vote, and 84 percent said the same about the economy. Rising college costs and the impacts of student debt burdens are significant issues that fall in the intersection of the two topics. Evidence shows student debt can impact personal wealth, delay homeownership, affect personal decisions to marry or start a family, and that it has “cripple[d] retail sales growth.”
Student debt’s impacts on the long-term financial well-being of borrowers are reverberating throughout the economy, and they are likely felt more acutely by those individuals with the most unmanageable debt burdens. But a viewer who relies on evening cable news programming to understand the causes and impacts of the student debt crisis, or to learn about possible solutions, might not know that at all.
Images created by Sarah Wasko.
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Fox Staunchly Defending Myth That Tax Cuts Create Economic Growth
Fox & Friends attempted to defend Republican nominee Donald Trump's budget-busting tax plan by pushing the discredited claim that his proposed tax cuts for the rich and for corporations would stimulate economic growth.
On October 11, Fox & Friends was joined by Fox Business host Stuart Varney to discuss Trump’s tax cuts, which, according to Varney, will “get 4 percent growth within a couple of years.” After Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade pressed Varney about criticism of how much additional debt would be incurred under Trump’s “trickle-down” tax plan, Varney admitted it would “initially” increase federal deficit before speculating that, “over the longer term, the deficit, I think, comes down.” Varney also claimed Trump’s plan “is cutting taxes across the board” -- failing to mention that his cuts overwhelmingly benefit the top 1 percent of taxpayers, with almost nothing for working- and middle-class Americans. From the October 11 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:
Fox & Friends has hosted Varney before to push Trump’s “trickle-down” economic policies; on September 28, the show invited Varney to defend Trump’s tax cuts for the rich. He decried Clinton’s assertion at the September 26 presidential debate that Trump’s tax cuts are "Trumped-up trickle-down economics" and claimed Trump’s huge tax cut for the wealthiest of Americans is “how we grow the economy.” Varney continued his defense of Trump’s economic policies on his Fox Business program Varney & Co. later that morning, claiming that, economically speaking, “we are in a mess [and] the only way out is to stimulate private enterprise by tax cuts.”
Fox’s desperate attempt to shore up Trump’s right-wing tax policy comes after economists, experts, and journalists have lampooned the plan’s many flaws. During the September 15 edition of CNN’s The Lead, Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi noted that the job creation and economic growth Trump has promised are “not feasible” without a significant increase of net immigration over the next decade, which Trump vehemently opposes. CNN global economic analyst Rana Foroohar derided Trump’s reliance on tax cuts to boost economic growth as “magical thinking,” and noted that economists now have “20 years of evidence that this sort of trickle-down theory is not working.” The idea of tax cuts as a means for creating growth has even been debunked by economists on Fox -- including on Varney’s own show. Economist Austan Goolsbee scolded Varney on the April 25 edition of Varney & Co., reminding the Fox host that cutting taxes would not increase growth and arguing instead that they would “choke off the money that you needed to make the investments that are critical to your future grow[th].”
According to a September 2014 report from the Brookings Institution, tax cuts do not always create economic growth and can even discourage growth by undermining economic incentives to invest. A September 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) similarly concluded that reducing top income tax rates does not correlate to increased economic growth, but lowering top rates does "appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution."
Varney has attempted to rewrite history before to claim tax cuts created “gigantic” increases in revenue during previous Republican administrations, and Fox has repeatedly pushed debunked trickle-down economic claims. The fact remains that tax cuts for the wealthy guarantee only one thing: lost revenue that could be spent on vital investments that improve the lives of every American.
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Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) will face off on October 4 in a debate at Longwood University in Farmville, VA. As media outlets prepare for the only vice presidential debate of the 2016 election, they should have all facts about how Indiana really fared during Pence’s governorship.