clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

3 pressing issues to think about this week besides the debates

Ritu Manoj Jethani /

It's easy to get pulled into the daily excitement of campaigns, especially this campaign. But there are some stories that transcend the latest from the campaign trail or the debate podium. Here are a few things we're thinking about this week that aren't Alicia Machado, the vice presidential debate, or Donald Trump's tax returns.

Democrats eke out a funding win for Flint

Jennifer N. Victor

While everyone was talking about the first presidential debate and its strange aftermath last week, Congress was doing remarkable stuff that flew under the radar. In addition to overriding a presidential veto for the first time in eight years, Congress successfully passed a continuing resolution (CR) that keeps the government open for business when its new fiscal year starts October 1, despite not having passed any of the regular spending bills this year. Given Congress's productivity on conducting regular business over the past few years, averting a government shutdown is reason to celebrate.

Moreover, the politics that accompanied this accomplishment were classic. Typically, the minority party (now Democrats) has little power in legislative negotiations, but Democrats were able to effectively leverage significant policy and political gains out of the negotiations over the CR. The CR is a "must pass" bill, in that if Congress did not pass it before Saturday, the government would shut down. This made it an attractive legislative vehicle. Moreover, Democrats knew that Republicans seeking to maintain their majority in both chambers would likely take a public hit if the government shut down.

Knowing this, the Democrats rejected a CR earlier in the week because it did not include money for water resources in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere. Effectively, Democrats held the spending bill that would keep the government open hostage in order to extract their preferred policy for Flint. The Democrats insisted on these resources, and Republicans eventually agreed to vote on separate legislation on this topic after the election.

A rare bit of political leverage for the minority party, brought about by election pressures, resulted in a happy outcome for both parties, and for America.

Racial tensions could provide a tipping point in swing states

Julia Azari

This is kind of cheating, since it's about the election, but as election watchers fall over themselves to get a read on swing states, I want to remind our readers about the importance of race politics in some of these places.

I'm writing this from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we seem to have converged on the term "unrest" to describe a brief and violent episode that occurred in part of the city over the summer. The August Marquette University law school poll reveals some important dynamics: 90 percent of white respondents report that the police made them feel safe rather than anxious, while 57 percent of Hispanic and African-American respondents reported that the police made them feel safe. Statewide, the balance of public opinion (48 percent to 37 percent) attributed the "unrest" to "lack of respect for law and order," rather than to systemic problems.

Last week, Milwaukee County's controversial sheriff, David Clarke — an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement who spoke at the Republican convention over the summer — flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, the most recent site of intense protests.

Wisconsin isn't strictly considered a highly competitive state in the presidential race — it's pretty reliably Democratic in presidential elections, in part because of the strong African-American voting bloc in Milwaukee. And it's not identical to, say, Ohio, that nail-biting bellwether state, although there are some similarities between Milwaukee and Cleveland.

What strikes me as relevant here is the intersection between national race politics and political geography — that is, the handful of states that might determine the election result. The 2016 campaign has brought race and politics, along with Trump's oft-repeated phrase "law and order," to the forefront, unlike in recent history. But that doesn't mean the issue is new — race and racial attitudes have determined voting habits and partisanship for a long time.

One question that comes to mind for me is how thoroughly the white electorate is sorted into the two parties based on race issues. Are there voters in that demographic who are weak Democrats but who respond negatively to protests and unrest? There might be a small number of these voters, but in competitive states, this might matter. I think it's a hypothesis worth exploring.

Climate change is an oft-forgotten, ever-present threat

Jonathan M. Ladd

The two most important threats to human civilization as we know it are nuclear weapons and climate change. Given the United States' essential role in dealing with both of these threats, it is disappointing that neither got too much coverage in the first presidential debate. Both topics were mentioned briefly, but neither was the subject of an entire segment. I hope that in future debates both could get more time, forcing the candidates to explain more thoroughly their strategies to deal with them. Let me today focus especially on climate change.

Climate change came up in the debate segment on jobs, when Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of "think[ing] that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it's real." Trump then denied that was his position, even though he wrote a tweet espousing the Chinese conspiracy theory in 2012. Clinton went on to tout her support for clean energy, while Trump attacked the Obama administration for investing in a solar energy company that went bankrupt.

Given that the commitments candidates make during the campaign tend to predict fairly well the policies that they will pursue in office, it would have been nice if moderator Lester Holt had asked the candidates to explain a wider variety of their climate change policies. Specifically, it would have been nice if Clinton had during the debate reiterated her support for continuing the Environmental Protection Agency's policy under the Obama administration of aggressively regulating carbon as a pollutant. This is an essential policy for ensuring that the US lives up to its commitments under the 2016 Paris climate agreement.

It is already clear that a Clinton administration is committed to continuing these policies and a Trump administration would likely reverse them. But the more a candidate talks about a policy during the campaign, the more likely he or she is to follow through with it when in office.

This is not even an issue where Clinton faces a choice between public opinion and doing the right thing. She is already likely to lose states such as West Virginia and Kentucky, and a host of very conservative states where the median voter is likely opposed to carbon restrictions. Yet in the country overall, efforts to control carbon are fairly popular.

This has been asked in polls in different ways over the years, but the results usually reflect majority support for Obama and Clinton's position. A 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 53 percent of respondents supported the Obama administration's carbon restrictions even if they raised the cost of electricity. Only 39 percent were opposed. A 2013 Duke University poll found that 63 percent of respondents either "somewhat" or "strongly" supported "requiring electric utilities to produce a large amount of energy from low carbon sources such as wind, solar, natural gas and nuclear power." Only 14 percent were "somewhat" or "strongly" opposed.

Furthermore, Americans tend to trust Democrats more than Republicans on this issue. A July 2016 Fox News poll asked people which of the two nominees they trusted to do a "better job" on climate change. Fifty-nine percent said Hillary Clinton, while only 28 percent said Donald Trump.

There are undoubtedly some ways to word survey questions that would produce more opposition to carbon restrictions. But these polls indicate that there are ways to talk about this in which the more aggressive position against climate change is popular.

I hope that in future debates, Trump and Clinton are forced to reiterate in more detail, in this very prominent setting, what their climate policies would be — not because an intelligent observer can't already determine what their positions are, but because going on the record over and over in public increases the pressure on Clinton to follow through fully on her plans once in office.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.