Trump Has Stolen Democrats' Playbook On Trade

Sep 12, 2019
Originally published on September 13, 2019 10:17 am

Democrats running for president next year have worked hard to differentiate themselves from President Trump on issues such as immigration, tax cuts and health care. When it comes to trade, that hasn't been so easy.

Trump, after all, came to office as a fierce critic of U.S. trade policy, arguing that previous administrations had been duped into signing free trade agreements that had cost Americans millions of manufacturing jobs.

"I pledge to never sign any trade agreement that hurts our workers or that diminishes our freedom and independence," he said to enthusiastic applause in his nomination speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

At times, Trump's rhetoric on trade has sounded pretty much indistinguishable from that of the most liberal Democrats. And since taking office Trump has veered sharply away from traditional Republican policy on trade, through a series of tariffs and trade wars that have upended relations with the most important U.S. trading partners.

"It's like Donald Trump has co-opted Democratic trade policy," says Dan Ikenson, director of the trade policy center at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Democrats have long been seen as the party of the working class and labor unions, and many shared a strong skepticism about trade agreements.

President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law, but he did so over the opposition of most of his fellow Democrats in Congress.

By the time President Barack Obama spearheaded the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade pact involving a dozen Pacific Rim nations, opposition to trade agreements had only hardened among both Democrats and many Republicans.

After years of watching U.S. manufacturing jobs flee overseas, American voters who were once open to free trade increasingly see it as it harmful to American interests, says Elaine Kamarck, a former aide to Clinton.

"Even before Trump there was the beginning of a sort of left-right consensus that we needed to do something about trade and particularly something about China," says Kamarck, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

That has left Democratic politicians who once backed agreements like NAFTA in something of a bind. They have responded by trying to thread the needle, arguing that trade is still beneficial, as long as it's done fairly.

In 2016, Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, went from supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership to arguing that it needed to be renegotiated — a position now shared by current front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden.

"The Democrats that are running for president are largely reflecting where Democrats in Congress have been for decades, and the Democratic base," says Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

"Candidates like Biden ... who have been great defenders of the failed status quo and promoters of it — and may still on policy grounds believe in it — recognize that politically they just can't be there anymore," she adds.

Other Democratic candidates have sought to outflank Trump with even harsher opposition to trade policy.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren argues that Trump's revised NAFTA agreement with Mexico and Canada didn't go far enough. She has proposed a much stricter set of regulations that would essentially bar the U.S. from trading with countries that fail to uphold labor and environmental standards.

Trade pacts like NAFTA are written by multinational corporations for their own benefit, Warren said at a CNN debate in July. "They have no loyalty to America. They have no patriotism. If they can save a nickel by moving a job to Mexico, they'll do it in a heartbeat," she said.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long been a fierce critic of U.S. trade policy, agreed. "If anybody here thinks that corporate America gives one damn about the average American worker, you're mistaken," he said.

Other Democrats have criticized Trump's tactics, if not his goals. By imposing or just threatening tariffs against traditional U.S. allies such as Canada, Europe and Japan, Trump has undercut his own negotiating position and made it harder to take on the real bad actor, China, several candidates have said.

Tariffs "are a huge mistake," former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke said at the CNN debate. "They constitute the largest tax increase on the American consumer, hitting the middle class and the working poor especially hard, and farmers in Iowa and across the country are bearing the brunt of the consequences."

The chaotic nature of Trump's trade agenda gives Democrats an opening to argue that despite his harsh rhetoric, he hasn't really delivered on trade, Kamarck says. There's still no trade agreement with China, and the new NAFTA hasn't made it through Congress yet.

"He's been on and off and around and up and down and nobody knows where the negotiations stand and he says things that aren't true, and so I think on trade this will come down to a matter of the president's competence," Kamarck says.

To Ikenson, of the pro-trade Cato Institute, the tenor of the current debate leaves a lot to be desired.

As Trump fights with China and Democrats ramp up their own rhetoric, no one is left to argue for the economic benefits of trade.

"What happened to the abandoned center?" Ikenson asks. "That seems to me to be a place where a lot of good things can happen."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One issue that may well come up at tonight's debate is trade. President Trump came to office as a fierce critic of U.S. trade policy, saying it's cost jobs for American workers, and he has upended many of the most important U.S. trade relationships. That has left the Democrats running for president searching for ways to distinguish themselves, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: In their rhetoric on trade, it can be hard to tell the difference between President Trump and the Democrats running to replace him. Here's Trump during the Republican Convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I pledge to never sign any trade agreement that hurts our workers or that diminishes our freedom and our independence. We will never, ever sign bad trade deals. America first again. America first.

ZARROLI: And here's Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on MSNBC last spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: We have got to establish trade policies which do not allow corporate America to simply shut down in this country and refuse to pay workers here a decent wage and move to countries around the world, where they're paying people pennies an hour.

ZARROLI: Democrats have traditionally been the party of the working class, of labor unions. Much more than Republicans, they have been skeptics of global trade. But Trump has been able to outflank Democrats, says Dan Ikenson of the Cato Institute.

DAN IKENSON: It's pretty interesting because it's like Donald Trump has co-opted democratic trade policy.

ZARROLI: At one time, voters were more open to the promise of global trade, and Democratic presidents, such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, could position themselves as free traders. But years of watching jobs flee overseas has soured many voters in both parties on trade pacts, such as NAFTA, says Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution.

ELAINE KAMARCK: Even before Trump, there was the beginning of a sort of left-right consensus that we needed to do something about trade and particularly something about China.

ZARROLI: Front-runner Joe Biden once supported trade pacts, but he's been forced to soft-pedal his positions.

Lori Wallach is founder of Global Trade Watch and a big critic of trade pacts, such as NAFTA. As she sees it, Democrats are finally returning to their roots as the party of labor.

LORI WALLACH: The Democrats that are running for president are largely reflecting where Democrats in Congress have been for decades and the Democratic base.

ZARROLI: But Wallach says Democrats have tried to differentiate themselves from Trump by saying he hasn't delivered on trade. Despite a chaotic trade war, for example, there's still no trade agreement with China.

Again, Elaine Kamarck of Brookings.

KAMARCK: He's been on and off and around and up and down. And nobody knows where the negotiations stand. And he says things that aren't true. And so I think on trade, this will come down to a matter of the president's competence.

ZARROLI: To Dan Ikenson of the pro-trade Cato Institute, the political dynamic is disappointing. None of the front-runners is making a vigorous case for the economic benefits of trade, he says. Trump has launched a populist attack on trade.

IKENSON: And the response we're getting from many of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination is to go to the left. What happened to the abandoned center? That seems, to me, to be a place where a lot of good things can happen.

ZARROLI: But as the election approaches, it's unlikely any candidate will be defending trade too aggressively. To win in 2020, candidates will have to make their case in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and those are parts of the country that have seen a huge loss of manufacturing jobs over the years.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LELE MARCHITELLI'S "LATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.