If elected president, Pete Buttigieg says, he would remove Donald Trump's tariffs on Chinese imports.
In the meantime, he'll settle for just calling them what they are.
"Tariffs are taxes on Americans—and we talk as if that's not the case; we forget that Americans are paying them," Buttigieg said this morning.
That shouldn't really be noteworthy, but unfortunately it is. President Trump has routinely, and falsely, claimed that the tariffs are being paid by China. On Wednesday, while facing questions from Rep. Cindy Axne (D–Iowa), Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin tied himself into knots in a hilarious attempt to avoid admitting that tariffs are taxes.
.@RepCindyAxne: Are you in agreement that American consumers will pay more as a result of tariffs?
MNUCHIN: I don't necessarily agree with that, no.
AXNE: So you disagree with all of our key retailers and economists who say they will?
MNUCHIN: ¯_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/ZaTFg2l0FM
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 22, 2019
Mnuchin is the latest in a long line of Trump administration officials put in the awkward position of trying to balance economic reality with the president's private reality. Trump was reportedly unhappy after Larry Kudlow, a senior economic aide, earlier this month admitted that tariffs are being paid by Americans.
Though he voiced some support for the Trump administration's overall goal of reshaping China's behavior, Buttigieg said the use of tariffs has been "counterproductive" and he promised to move in a different direction if he finds himself in the White House in January 2021.
"Tariffs aren't going to get China to change its economic model or its regional security strategy," said Buttigieg.
Those comments were part of a wide-ranging and at times rapid-fire interview with The Washington Post's Robert Costa. Buttigieg, the current mayor of South Bend, Indiana, held his own while facing questions about domestic and foreign policy, his personal life, and the Trump presidency. He said he would support impeachment proceedings against the president—though he also dismissed the entire mess as being too D.C.-centric to interest most Americans. He also dismissed the notion that he's too baby-faced to stand on a debate stage with someone like Trump. "I don't have a problem of standing up to somebody who was working on Season 7 of The Apprentice while I was packing my bags to go to Afghanistan," he said, a line that seems destined for heavy rotation on the campaign trail.
As he's done before, Buttigieg distanced himself from the Democratic Party's left flank. Calling himself a "democratic capitalist," he said that Democrats have erred for decades by not talking enough about freedom.
That's something that might attract curious libertarians to his campaign, but as Reason's Zuri Davis and others have noted, those statements aren't quite what they appear. Buttigieg frequently backs them up with promises of greater government involvement in personal and business affairs. For example, on Thursday he argued that bigger government can help freedom by limiting bad outcomes created by the marketplace—like the credit card companies he accused of staking the deck against low-income Americans through mandatory arbitration clauses.
When it comes to trade, Buttigieg's tack away from the left makes a lot of sense. Polls show Democratic voters—probably due, at least in part, to their distaste for Trump—swinging toward greater support for free trade. A Hill-Harris poll released earlier this month found that 58 percent of Democrats believe Trump's trade negotiations with China would result in fewer jobs and less economic opportunity. Democratic pollster Simon Rosenberg has pointed out that Trump's approval rating has been sinking in states where the trade war has been most damaging, including such electorally important states as Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
As the mayor of a Midwestern city, Buttigieg may be uniquely positioned to bring a key message to Trump voters: that tariffs aren't the answer to their economic woes and that Trump's trade policies are not producing his promised results. At the very least, it's good to have another sane voice in a trade debate that's grown increasingly maddening.