Free Trade

Biden Is Turning Trump's Trade War Into a Major Campaign Issue. More Democrats Should Follow His Lead.

A majority of Democratic voters now favor free trade. Some of the party's presidential candidates are starting to notice.


Joe Biden made headlines this week for calling President Donald Trump "an existential threat to America." But in that same speech in Iowa, the Democratic frontrunner also made some comments on trade policy that were both less hyperbolic and more important.

"Trump doesn't get the basics," Biden said. "He thinks the tariffs are being paid by China. Any beginning econ student at Iowa or Iowa State could tell you the American people are paying his tariffs."

How many farmers in Iowa, Biden asked, are losing sleep at night because of the reciprocal tariffs imposed by China? How many manufacturing businesses are being choked by higher input costs? Trump "thinks he's being tough," the former vice president said. "Well, it's easy to be tough when someone else is feeling the pain."

Biden had already staked out a relatively pro-trade position within the large field of candidates seeking to replace Trump in 2020. But his remarks this week represent his most direct attack yet on Trump's trade policies. They are a welcome sign for anyone hoping the 2020 election will become a referendum on Trump-style economic nationalism, and it may signal to other Democrats that they should step up their criticism of the president's bellicose trade rhetoric.

As Biden ramps up his criticism of Trump's tariffs, some other candidates are similarly adjusting their message in a more pro-trade direction. Take Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.). Less than a month ago, in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, the candidate criticized Trump's "irresponsible" preference "for conducting trade policy, economic policy, foreign policy by tweet," but she refused to condemn the president's use of tariffs. Now Harris is sounding a different note.

Trump's trade policies are "taxing American consumers," she told Noticias Telemundo in an interview last week. "When we look at the trade policy he is conducting in terms of China, now with Mexico, it's going to result in people here paying billions of dollars more a year for consumer products." In an NPR interview this week, Harris took an even stronger stance against what she called "the Trump trade tax."

"As a result of his trade policy by tweet, the American people on a monthly basis are spending $1.4 billion—with a 'b'—more on groceries, on clothing, on washing machines," she told the NPR Politics Podcast. "We've got farmers in Iowa who have soybeans rotting in bins. Farmers who over a decade bilt up relationships with a market in China and now, guess what? When you leave the game, people will find other players. So now we're looking at our farmers in Iowa trying to compete with people in Brazil, who are selling substandard products."

Other Democrats may have a harder time making that shift, particularly those on the party's left flank. 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. 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 the same reason. Both Vox and The New Republic have described her strategy as trying to "outflank" Trump on trade.

But those Democratic candidates who are shifting their stance on trade are following where their prospective supporters are leading. A 2015 Monmouth poll found that only 24 percent of Democrats believed free trade agreements were good for the United States. But when Monmouth asked the same question last month, the pollster found that support for trade deals has risen to 55 percent among Democrats. The Pew Research Center says that 72 percent of Democrats believe the North American Free Trade Agreement has been beneficial for the United States.

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 such as Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

The New York Times' Neil Irwin outlines how Democrats can make an anti-tariff pitch to voters without appearing soft on China:

You can imagine a trade pitch from the 2020 Democratic nominee that goes something like this: "I'll work with allies to keep pressure on China over its unfair practices—but not with open-ended tariffs on thousands of goods that are a tax on American consumers and invite retaliation against American farmers. I won't use tariffs against countries that are our close partners. And I'll use trade policy to try to boost well-being for American workers, rather than using it as a cudgel on unrelated issues."

That seems to be exactly where Biden wants to go. In his Iowa speech on Tuesday night, Biden acknowledged that China is "a serious challenge to us, and in some areas a real threat." (That's a bit of a flip-flop. Last month Biden laughed off worries about China "eating our lunch" at an Iowa campaign event.) He said the United States should "build a united front of allies to challenge China's abusive behavior."

That was more-or-less the approach that the Obama administration was taking with the  Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was seen as a way to counter China's influence in Asia and across the Pacific. Trump's victory in the 2016 election ended the United State's participation in the trade deal—a decision that he may not have fully understood, and one that almost certainly made it more difficult for the U.S. to confront China.

Some of the shift in the Democratic electorate is likely a function of partisanship: Trump is bad; Trump loves tariffs; ergo, tariffs are bad. You shouldn't mistake that for a sudden embrace of free markets.

What's true for Democrats generally is also likely true for Biden specifically. Elsewhere in his speech on Tuesday, the former veep spoke glowingly about the auto industry bailouts approved during the Obama administration—"one of the proudest moments in the White House," he said. Elsewhere, Biden touted his support for high speed rail, "clean energy infrastructure," and higher taxes on the wealthy.

But to the extent that Biden is grasping toward a Clintonesque (the Bill variety) view on trade and an Obama-era desire to work with allies to solve problems like China's illiberal policies, he has the opportunity to offer a direct retort to Trump's utterly umoored approach.

And to the extent that he expresses that viewpoint while lapping the rest of the Democratic field, perhaps he can convince others to join him.