WASHINGTON — As the smoke cleared from the first presidential debate, industry officials remained deeply concerned over the candidates’ consistent attacks on trade, but saw some positive takeaways in their positions on tax and regulatory reform.
The acrimonious debate, which had the feel at times of a heavyweight boxing match, hit on many of the key economic issues facing the country, ranging from wages and trade to taxes and regulations. The candidates’ didn’t let up on the anti-trade rhetoric that they’ve been spouting on the campaign trail for the past year and it appears their tone is unlikely to soften.
Donald Trump reiterated his calls for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, his strong opposition to the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and his pledge to go after China for manipulating its currency and distorting trade to the disadvantage of U.S. manufacturers.
Hillary Clinton again focused on strong enforcement of trade, called for a special trade prosecutor and defended her opposition to TPP.
The strong opposition to trade rankled industry officials representing apparel brands and retailers that import billions of dollars in apparel and textiles every year.
“In a campaign governed by the rules of sound bites, it is unlikely that our industry learned anything new about the future of trade and the economy from the debate,” said Rick Helfenbein, president and chief executive officer at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “While Secretary Clinton respects that we are only 5 percent of the world’s population and that we need enforced trade to survive, Mr. Trump dismissed all trade agreements as ‘defective’ and, in general indicated that ‘we lose on everything.’ He neglected to mention that he also thinks all our trade negotiators are stupid.”
One comment that stood out for Helfenbein came from Clinton, who essentially said trade is not the only challenge in the economy. Helfenbein said he concluded that Clinton likely won the debate, but also noted it is unlikely “Trump supporters will change their minds.”
He added, “Probably the most important thing we learned from the debate is that ‘words matter when you run for president,’” echoing a comment from Clinton at the debate.
Julia Hughes, president at the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said: “I think the debate offered insight last night into each candidate’s positions, but the one issue where there really is no difference between them continues to be trade policy. Our members continue to be disappointed that both candidates are focusing on the negative perception of trade and not looking at the positive impact on the economy, but to be honest there was no new discussion on that last night.”
Hughes said she expects the anti-trade rhetoric to continue until Election Day.
Hughes said, “What is important right now is that the presidential candidates are locked into these positions on trade policy.” Hughes noted, however, that recent discussions with lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been encouraging and renewed her optimism over the prospects of TPP passing in a lame-duck session in Congress after the election on Nov. 8.
Beyond trade, some industry officials saw some positives in the candidates’ comments on taxes and regulations.
“From our perspective, I would say that the points that were raised about taxes and especially regulation will resonate with a lot of our manufacturers, our members,” said Augustine Tantillo, president and ceo at the National Council of Textile Organizations. “I think there’s been a fairly consistent complaint that the level of regulation implemented by the Obama administration over the past eight years has caused some serious heartburn and problems, and I think there is a hope that under whatever candidate takes office in January, that there’s going to be some trimming back of that or at least a more reasonable approach in that area.”
Tantillo said Trump has made a “much clearer and stronger case in that particular issue, identifying it as a handicap to U.S. business.”
But he also noted that his members have concerns about Trump’s pledge to renegotiate NAFTA.
“Obviously under NAFTA, there is duty free treatment as long as the agreement’s rules of origin are met,” Tantillo said. “So we would be concerned about any arrangement that would re-impose duties in an area where the yarn forward rule of origin is actually working.
“Our members produce in the United States, have billions of dollars of investment in the U.S. and employ hundreds of thousands of workers, so we are open to any concept that makes it conducive and profitable to do all of those things in the United States,” he added.
Retailers were encouraged by the candidates’ comments on tax reform, which include lowering the corporate tax rate and simplifying the tax code, a spokesman for the Retail Industry Leaders Association said.
“On the issues specifically, it was a lot of restating of positions that the candidates have been outspoken about throughout the campaign,” he said. “In some cases that’s good in the sense that there seems to be a strong desire to address our tax code. On the negative side, there still seems to be strong opinions inconsistent with the industry’s point of view on trade.”
The RILA spokesman said both candidates have acknowledged that “our tax code is broken” and have offered different approaches to fix it.
“So there is a willingness to speak about simplifying the tax code, which we view as a positive,” he said. “We would certainly prefer the rhetoric to soften and for the benefits of trade to be more widely broadcast, but we’re fairly sober on our perspective on where these two candidates are right now. When a winner is decided we look forward to sharing in greater detail our perspective on the value of trade.”
During the debate, Clinton reiterated her broad economic proposals, stressing that she will be a tough enforcer on trade, create jobs by building up the nation’s sagging infrastructure and supporting emerging and innovative industries.
“I want us to invest in you,” Clinton said. “I want us to invest in your future. That means jobs in infrastructure; in advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology; clean, renewable energy, and small business because most of the new jobs will come from small business. We also have to make the economy fairer. That starts with raising the national minimum wage and also guaranteeing, finally, equal pay for women’s work.”
Trump outlined a different path forward for the economy, one focused on stopping companies from moving production out of the country — a point that he has repeatedly been criticized on because his own licensed clothing suit and tie collection is made abroad.
Trump said he will cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent from 35 percent, renegotiate trade deals and roll back burdensome federal regulations.
“We have to stop our companies from leaving the United States and, with it, firing all of their people,” Trump said. “We cannot let it happen. “We have to renegotiate our trade deals, and we have to stop these countries from stealing our companies and our jobs.”