The final presidential debate took place Oct. 19 in Las Vegas, the famed home of boxing, wrestling and MMA showdowns. Millions tuned in looking for another slugfest. But Las Vegas isn’t simply about boxing matches and casinos. The challenges faced by the city, the state and the region should have informed the debate. Unfortunately, too often the debate moderators simply dwell on the scandals of the day rather than explore how local challenges frame national issues. Somehow, the first debate, held at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y., managed to ignore the growing student debt crisis. The debate in St. Louis, just miles away from Ferguson, Mo., never mentioned that city or probed the issues raised by its racially biased policing and criminal justice system.
The Commission on Presidential Debates released the topics for the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, to explore. These included debt and entitlements, immigration, the economy, the Supreme Court, foreign hot spots and the candidates’ fitness to be president. On immigration, Nevada has been a center of the growing and fierce debate over undocumented immigrants. We’ve heard all the posturing on Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall.
What would have been more interesting in Nevada is a discussion of the future of legal immigration. America has about 11 million undocumented workers, two-thirds of whom have been here 10 years or more. It also has 31 million legal immigrants, with a million more added each year. Counting their children, one in four Americans is of recent immigrant stock. And with the boomers retiring, all of the projected growth of the U.S. labor force from 2020 to 2030 will be from immigrants and their children.
That raises fundamental questions. For example, some call for giving preference in legal immigration to skilled workers rather than preferring those with family relations, even if unskilled. Uniting families is a value shared by conservatives and liberals alike. On the other hand, the economy would benefit more from skilled workers. What priority would the two candidates choose?
The presidential commission calls for discussing foreign hot spots, but surely the first hot spot that should have been discussed is right here at home: the punishing drought that is devastating the West and Southwest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared most of Nevada a natural disaster area from the lingering drought, with some of its biggest farmers facing 50 percent reductions in groundwater.
NASA now warns of the high chance of a 35-year mega-drought throughout the Southwest and Great Plains. July’s global temperatures were the hottest of any month since they began keeping records in 1880. Last year was the hottest on record; the first seven months of this year are even hotter. Global warming and catastrophic climate change aren’t distant concerns in these lands. Ask the candidates what they would do in response? Do we ignore it and struggle through? Or should we take real measures to address climate change?
Or consider big money that corrupts our politics. Las Vegas billionaires like Sheldon Adelson are brazen in their efforts to swing elections. The current Nevada Senate election is a case in point. Outside billionaires like George Soros and Tom Steyer on the Democratic side and the Koch brothers on the Republican side have poured more than $48 million in independent spending into the Nevada Senate race, compared with the 7 million spent by the two candidates combined. Nationally, the cost of this year’s elections will far exceed the record $6 billion spent in the last presidential year.
This level of outside money corrupts our politics and leaves our citizens cynical. Both presidential candidates say they would seek to curb it. How? How do we get real reform from the very politicians who have been elected by the old system? Finally, suburban poverty in Las Vegas is rising faster than it is nationwide. Between 2000 and 2004, there was a 123 percent increase in the suburban poverty rate in southern Nevada, compared with the alarming 65 percent increase nationwide. This poverty comes from the loss of jobs, and from the spread of lousy jobs that are low wage, part time, contingent and precarious. It also reflects the hangover from the housing collapse. Housing prices are rising in the region, but they remain 35 percent below their peak in 2006. At the end of 2015, nearly 30 percent of local homeowners were “seriously underwater,” about two times the national rate.
In Las Vegas, as elsewhere, mortgage brokers targeted minority buyers – the very workers who were struggling the hardest to bring their families out of poverty. Brokers lured them with packages that they couldn’t afford, peddled liar loans to hide their incomes, and promised them they could refinance because housing prices always go up. Then the banks blew up the economy. The banks got bailed out, but the homeowners didn’t.
What would the two candidates do to address the spread of suburban poverty, to create good jobs rather than lousy ones, and to aid those still struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession? Moderator Wallace should have used Las Vegas as more than a backdrop. He should have used it as a guide to issues that matter. Perhaps that could have save us from another scratch-and-claw alley fight.