Free Trade

Will 2020 Democrats Save Us From Trump's Protectionist Trade Policies? Don't Count on It.

Trade has made Americans better off, and Democrats should use every opportunity to make that argument in the face of Trump's trade war.


President Donald Trump has raised tariffs on American allies, embroiled the country in a potentially economically destructive trade war with its biggest trading partner, and struggled to sell Congress his proposed rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But if you're looking for an alternative to Trump's protectionism, you probably won't get it from the Democrats seeking to replace him as president. The Democratic candidates say they are opposed to how Trump has been handling the trade war, but they have struggled to articulate a worldview that sets them apart from the White House's current occupant. Some are even hitting the same protectionist notes as Trump, trying to compete with or outflank him on trade. They might only be hurting themselves in the process.

Take a telling exchange Sunday between one candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.), and CNN host Jake Tapper. Tapper noted that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) had tweeted praise for Trump's decision to raise tariffs on about $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. Is Schumer right, Tapper asked, that Trump is doing the right thing?

Harris responded by saying she would prefer to work with allies to confront China rather than going it alone. She also criticized Trump's "irresponsible" preference "for conducting trade policy, economic policy, foreign policy by tweet." So far, so good.

But Tapper pressed on, wanting to know if Harris would disagree with the basic premise underlying Trump's anti-trade views: that American workers have been burned by decades of bad trade deals. And that's all it took to make Kamala Harris sound like Donald Trump.

"I believe that there is no question that, over many decades, the rules have been written in a way that have been to the exclusion of lifting up the middle class and working people in America and working families in America," Harris said. "I believe that we have got to have policy that better protects American workers and American industries."

Harris later added she would not have voted for the original NAFTA deal if she had been in Congress when it was passed in 1994.

It's impossible, of course, to paint a 23-candidate Democratic primary field with a single brush. But Harris' tactic of criticizing the style but not the substance of Trump's trade policies—while simultaneously echoing his argument that trade deals have been bad for Americans—has been common in this early stage of the campaign.

Perhaps they are waiting to see whether the latest round of tariffs causes more overt economic damage to the country before they take a stand for free trade. Perhaps they are worried about giving Trump an opening to attack them. Perhaps their ties to protectionist labor unions are to blame. But regardless of the reason, many Democrats may be missing a huge opportunity by going soft on Trump and refusing to embrace the benefits of trade.

Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that free trade in general—and NAFTA in particular—have improved both their own lives and the country as a whole.

They probably believe this because it happens to be true. The mere existence of NAFTA boosts the U.S. economy by about 0.5 percent per year, which adds up to quite a lot over more than two decades. The Commerce Department says that more than 11 million American jobs are directly related to foreign investment or the export of American goods. A 2017 analysis by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a trade policy think tank, shows that international trade boosted Americans' per household income by about $18,000 since 1950—and that the gains flowed disproportionately to lower-income households.

Despite what you might hear at a Trump rally, there is little doubt that trade has made Americans better off. But instead of taking the opportunity to put Trump on the defensive, many frontrunning Democrats keep pandering to the minority of voters who wrongly believe otherwise.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) has already published a trade platform that calls for more "Buy America" programs and, as Trump often does, criticizes America's trade deficit. On the campaign trail, Sanders has touted his longstanding opposition to NAFTA and to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an Obama-era trade compact that would have linked the U.S. with a dozen other countries around the Pacific. Trump pulled America out of the TPP negotiations shortly after taking office.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) has criticized Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs for not being protectionist enough, and she opposes Trump's NAFTA rewrite for not being protectionist enough. Both Vox and The New Republic have described her strategy as trying to "outflank" Trump on trade.

Sens. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) voted against giving the Obama administration authority to fast-track the TPP negotiations.

Even where Democrats have not sounded protectionist notes, they haven't been vocally pro-trade either. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, tweeted a reminder this week that Trump's tariffs were nothing more than taxes on Americans, but he has otherwise been silent about trade issues. During his unsuccessful 2018 Senate run in Texas, Beto O'Rourke went hard against Trump's trade policies, which he said were imposing direct economic harms on Texan small businesses that depend on trade with Mexico and other nations; in the past he has defended NAFTA's impact on both the country in general and Texas in particular. But he hasn't been pushing that message as hard in the early stages of his presidential run.

Meanwhile, Democratic voters seem to be embracing trade more than ever. Polling by the Pew Research Center shows that 72 percent of Democrats believe NAFTA has been beneficial for the United States. A Hill-Harris poll released earlier this month found 58 percent of Democrats believe Trump's trade negotiations with China would result in fewer jobs and less economic opportunity.

And as Democratic pollster Simon Rosenberg has pointed out, Trump's approval rating has been sinking in states where the trade war has been most damaging—electorally important states like Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

Some of those numbers probably reflect Democratic voters' antipathy for Trump, not a spontaneous embrace of global trade. Even so, running against Trump's trade policies seems like a no-brainer for any Democrat who wants to win the White House. If an anti-trade candidate emerges from the primary field, Democrats could cede the issue to Trump—and miss a chance to hold him accountable for economic problems caused by his trade war—in a foolish pursuit of a set of blue-collar voters who probably aren't coming back into the fold anyway.

About the only Democrat in the 2020 primary field who seems to be reading those polls is Joe Biden.

Even if Biden wanted to turn against trade now, he couldn't really do it. His political career includes support for NAFTA and for the TPP. During a recent campaign stop in Iowa, Politico reports, he was asked whether it was a mistake to support NAFTA. "No, it wasn't," he replied.

That makes him about as unabashedly pro-trade a politician as you'll find in the current iteration of the Democratic Party. Biden is being attacked by Sanders and others for his trade record, but—what do you know?—he's running away from the field. Even if that's mostly a matter of his high name recognition, Biden's stance on trade almost certainly isn't hurting him.

Voters generally don't think too much about trade when they go to the polls, but that might be starting to change, particularly for Democrats. As Scott Lincicome, a trade attorney and adjunct fellow with the Cato Institute, points out in a recent research paper, surveys of Americans' views on trade "puncture the current conventional wisdom on trade and public opinion—in particular, that Americans have turned en masse against trade and globalization, and that President Donald Trump's economic nationalism reflects the bottom-up policy demands of a silent majority of American voters."

This is not an easy transition to make. Democrats had been skeptical of trade for decades, even though the party started to shift away from that position in the 1990s and continued moving that way as Obama tried to get the TPP deal done. Trump's election has shoved the GOP in the opposite direction, opening up a logical opportunity for Democrats to complete that transition—to be the party that stands for openness and looks outward, in contrast to Trumpist Republicans who want ever more restrictions on the free movement of people and goods.

What are they waiting for?

NEXT: White House Seeks Social Media Sob Stories from Conservative Snowflakes

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “No tariffs, no barriers, that’s the way it should be — and no subsidies,” the president said at a press conference.
    “We don’t want to pay anything — why should we pay?” Trump said. “Ultimately, that’s what you want. You want a tariff free, no barriers and you want no subsidies.”

    Poor Boehm.

    Hey Boehm, anymore retarded articles about the DOW Jones?
    Friday, May 3, 2019: 26,504
    Thursday, May 16, 2019: 25,905

    No articles about the DOW Jones has regained hundreds of points in the last week after a market correction?

    1. It isn’t the worst Onion article I have ever read.

      Just a hint of facts and skillfully suggesting a response and course of action that is absurd and counter-productive.

      My guess is that appeasing the Chinese will only lead to a thousand blooms in the future.

  2. This is a good example of why both major parties suck. Both are wrong on trade, wrong on foreign policy (always more wars), wrong on domestic policy (always more spending and more control). Both major parties can go to hell, as far as I’m concerned.

    1. I see one major difference that makes the lesser of two evils obvious: One keeps trying to tax us more and the other fights back

      1. And one wants to repeal the First and Second Amendments and stack the courts. But what is that in comparison to Mexicans and free abortions?

        1. I figured I would leave out the first amendment since the white house is asking people to tattle on twitter

          I figured I would leave out the second amendment because of the bump stock ban.

          Healthcare for all (including Mexicans) is super libertarian /sarc

      2. One keeps trying to tax us more and the other fights back

        Cutting taxes while not cutting spending is not “fighting back.” It’s “blowing smoke up your ass.”

        1. too bad the only candidate talking about the deficit, Bill Weld, also won’t shut up about climate change. Best of luck running on “cut the debt but government action on the boogeyman!”

        2. Funny, I thought it was the government taking less of the money I earned.

          But yes, spending cuts now please.

      3. One keeps trying to tax us more and the other fights back

        You are right that Trump is trying to tax us more in the form of his tariffs. But you’re wrong that Democrats are particularly interested in fighting back other than on a superficial level.

        1. Tariffs are only a tax if the company passes the cost to the consumer, a cost which the consumer can choose to pay or buy something else.

          Taxes are directly out of our pocket whether we like it or not.

  3. Admittedly it will be difficult for any 2020 Democrat to match Obama’s performance in this area. After all, he personally created the strongest 8-year run in US economic history. However anything will be an improvement compared to Drumpf.


    1. OpenBordersLiberal-tarian
      “Obama’s performance in this area. After all, he personally created the strongest 8-year run in US economic history.”

      This seems to be a mantra for you. (Notice, I despise Trump’s style and most of his policies.) But, I have a question: what metrics are you using to reach that conclusion?

      1. parody

        1. I was wondering about that, but unsure. Thanks.

    2. Why is it that OBL’s parody is more believable than several or most of the writers at Reason. Should I be concerned?

  4. Tyler Cowen offers some sane analysis of the TRADE WAR!!

    To see why the full picture is more complicated, let’s say the U.S. slaps tariffs on the industrial inputs (whether materials or labor) it is buying from China. It is easy to see the immediate chain of higher costs for the U.S. businesses translating into higher prices for U.S. consumers, and that is what the afore-mentioned studies are picking up. But keep in mind China won’t be supplying those inputs forever, especially if the tariffs remain. Within a few years, a country such as Vietnam will provide the same products, perhaps at cheaper prices, because Vietnam has lower wages. So the costs to U.S. consumers are temporary, but the lost business in China will be permanent. Furthermore, the medium-term adjustment will have the effect of making China’s main competitors better exporters.

    Obviously, no final long-run estimates are possible right now. But it is quite plausible that China will bear the larger costs here, not the U.S.

    Another risk for China is this: As its access to U.S. markets becomes more difficult, China may be tempted to look to Europe. It remains to be seen whether the European Union will adopt additional protectionist measures, but China must consider that the possibility is more than zero.

    1. Plausible? I’m almost certain that it will.

      And if a Vietnam angle plays out (plausible) America shifted from dealing with a regional communist bully to a much more palpable country to deal with.

  5. Remember these tariffs are on China not the entire world. There are plenty of other nations who don’t run the world’s largest police state and who won’t use the money to fund a military to terrorize their neighbors who will be happy to step into the breach and provide Libertarians with their sacred supply of cheap shit. Gee markets adjust to new conditions. Who knew?

    1. People like simplicity and platitudes. So the idea that there is more going on here than they willingly understand makes them retreat to those platitudes instead of trying to intelligently engage the issue. Usually, you see this in the “I read a book on economics and it covers every aspect of this totally so I’m now an expert” crowd.

      1. Pretty much.

        1. Hahahaa. Did you forget about Canadian and Mexican tariffs, expert that you are? And no I don’t claim to be an expert but I know the products I buy and where they come from to some degree.

          1. And EU. Don’t forget our other allies that were included in the name of #NationalSecurity

      2. People like simplicity and platitudes.

        That’s one reason why Trump is president.

        1. Yes, people are tired of the “you didn’t build that” crowd.

        2. Yeah because Libertarians never engage in that at all.

      3. Seems to me more like a Dunning-Kruger situation. The economically literate folks have already considered both the fully naive and the more nuanced justifications and concluded they are either wrong in their entirety or much too weak to be dispositive.
        Meanwhile, the folks who want to rationalize a command economy and do not understand the underlying economics aren’t sufficiently competent to recognize that, and instead accuse the economically literate of reflexive and simplistic dogmatism.

        So the planners, as usual, either assign wildly optimistic estimates of their own ability to predict economic outcomes or believe they have the right to select which groups to coerce to achieve their political goals, all the while conflating the rationalizations for both political and economics goals in order to obscure conversation.

        1. The economically literate folks have already considered both the fully naive and the more nuanced justifications and concluded that they will support whatever policy benefits them personally and call everyone else a “central planner’ who must be made to suffer for “meh principles”

          There fixed it for you you fucking half literate baboon.

          1. whatever policy benefits them personally

            must be made to suffer for “meh principles”

            If you’re discussing motivation, you can claim one or neither, but not both of those.

            And I will absolutely call someone who claims the government should engage in massive, directed economic interventions a central planner, because that is an appropriate term and because it brings the conversation closer to the conceit embedded in their arguments.

    2. +100

      1. They’ll be the first domino.

      2. Do they have surfing there?

    3. Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum disagree. The tariffs Trump put on those products have not been lifted. Unless you were specifically talking about the China tariffs which yeah the China tariffs are only on China. But Trumps overall trade war extends to other countries. And no with the agreement of the USMCA (new NAFTA), they have not been lifted yet.

      1. TRADE WAR!!

        1. So yeah, way to refute my point. I guess you concede the argument that this isn’t all on Chinese goods. . And I don’t care if I call it a trade war or trade kerfuffle or any other bullshit term, it is what it is.

      2. WAR OF TRADE!!!

  6. continued moving that way as Obama tried to get the TPP deal done.

    Which his base despised.

    1. His base despised it for all of the wrong reasons but they were right to despise it. TPP is crony capitalism at its worst.

  7. I thought Reason was supposed to be a slightly more intelligent publication. But the discussion of trade, much like immigration, is as dumb as it gets.

    “Trade has made all Americans better off”

    This is like the “immigration is good” vs “immigration is bad” framing.

    The tack here is, first and foremost, ignore all of the actual, very real, very substantive policy issues and questions about immigration and trade. Then, instead of making any cogent arguments, go with a hamfisted attempt to frame the issue in such a way that suggests you are engaged in political advocacy aimed at people with IQs around 95 and below.

    1. When you quote someone you probably shouldn’t add words that were never said, especially when it substantively changes the meaning.

      1. When you say something you should try and understand and own the logical implications of saying it.

  8. Eric Boehm, how is equality in trade protectionism? Well I guess that could be considered protectionism if it is defined as China get all it wants and the US (and other nations) only gets what China will allow them to have. As it is ( and has been for every since that China has entered into world trade) the US has had to pay twice or more in taxes on the we buy from China and China pays half or less on what it imports from the US. In addition a China based business can have a company in the US and engage in business almost unrestricted except in very few areas whereas US business cannot do that in China. Where they do get into China the US business has to partner with a Chinese business as a minority partner (49% or less) in is greatly restricted on what it can do. In addition US companies doing business in China the local partner has full access to all and can take what it wants. Just look at what happened to GM. When they started manufacturing cars in China in very short order cars that looked exactly GM cars except they had Chinese nameplates appeared on the market and competed against GM. This is just a few of the thing that makes trade at this time an unlevel playing field and that is what Trump is trying to rectify.

  9. I disagree with Reason framing it as ‘which Democrats will save us’ from this ‘horrible trade policy’?

    What if the policy vis a vis China pans out? You think Kamala Harris – who I’m willing to bet has no substantive or interesting insights on foreign trade given her puerile intellectual flatulence – is gonna save you?

    Come on guys. Do better.

    Then again, I’ve been thrown into the ‘never again Democrats or Liberals’ camp.

  10. It’s impossible, of course, to paint a 23-candidate Democratic primary field with a single brush.

    Mr. Boehm, you haven’t read the Reason comment boards lately, have you?

    1. Shorter Jeff, leave the poor leftists alone!!

    2. Name one candidate of the now 24 that talks about lowering taxes and reducing the deficit… I want to know because they’ll have my vote

      1. I was thinking the same thing.

        You CAN paint a 23-candidate Democratic primary field with a single brush.

        They’re all Socialists who want government to own and control the means of production.

  11. What are they waiting for?

    Maybe they are waiting for the election. You gotta be a complete twit to see this as anything but a POLITICAL attempt to undermine Trump’s support in the Rust Belt. That ain’t gonna happen there by out-free-trading him – and NO OTHER STATES matter in 2020.

  12. Will 2020 Democrats Save Us From Trump’s Protectionist Trade Policies? Don’t Count on It.

    Even if they did, instead of $500/year in tariffs per American, Democrats will impose at least $5000/year in new taxes and debt per American.

    Thanks, but I take the $500 in tariffs any day over that.

  13. […] had already staked out a relatively pro-trade position within the large field of candidates seeking to replace Trump in […]

  14. […] had already staked out a relatively pro-trade position within the large field of candidates seeking to replace Trump […]

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.