Free Trade

Will Any Democrat Stand Up for Free Trade at This Week's Debates?

A majority of Americans say they favor free trade. But both major parties are moving in the other direction.


President Donald Trump's trade war is slowing investment in America, taxing American farmers and businesses, and, so far, has not produced any of the new trade deals the president promised.

So it's little surprise that Americans are increasingly unhappy with Trump's anti-trade stance. What is surprising, perhaps, is that the Democrats vying to challenge Trump in next year's presidential election seem mostly unwilling to take advantage of one of the incumbent's most obvious weaknesses.

New polling data released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center shows that 56 percent of Americans now say the tariffs are "bad for the country." That's up from 53 percent in September of last year.

Even more interesting is that the number of Americans who say that signing free trade agreements is a good thing has increased to 65 percent—with majorities of both Democrats (73 percent) and Republicans (59 percent) favoring such deals. Among Democrats, that figure is the highest since Pew started asking about trade in 2009. Republicans' views on free trade, meanwhile, have recovered to pre-2016 levels.

Other recent polls show similar results. A New York Times/Survey Monkey poll released earlier this month showed that 68 percent of respondents—including a majority of Republicans—said Trump's trade policies will raise prices, while 53 percent said Trump's Chinese tariffs will be "bad" for the United States.

Despite clear majorities that oppose Trump's protectionism and favor more trade with more nations, both major parties seem to be moving in the opposite direction. There's little hope that the GOP will rediscover the value of free trade as long as protectionist-in-chief Trump and his coterie of economic nationalists occupy the White House. Which gives the Democrats a clear opportunity to seize the high ground on trade.

Some of the 2020 candidates are tentatively trying to do so. The strongest rebukes of Trump's trade policies, so far, have come from former vice president Joe Biden and from Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

"Trump doesn't get the basics," Biden said during a speech in Iowa last month. "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." Trump thinks he's being tough, Biden added, but that's only because he's forcing American farmers and manufacturers to "feel the pain." Buttigieg has promised to lift Trump's tariffs if elected, calling them a "counterproductive" policy unlikely to change China's behavior while unnecessarily hurting Americans.

Generally speaking, however, the Democrats running for president have criticized Trump's handling of the trade war and his use of tariffs, while tacitly acknowledging that they believe the problem is Trump, and not the policies themselves.

For example, Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) told CNN's Jake Tapper in May that Trump's habit of "conducting trade policy, economic policy, foreign policy by tweet" was "irresponsible." But when pressed by Tapper she admitted that she largely agreed with Trump's assessment that free trade is a scourge on American workers. This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) unveiled a new trade policy paper that similarly criticized the style, but not the substance, of Trump's tariffs. "While I think tariffs are an important tool, they are not by themselves a long-term solution to our failed trade agenda and must be part of a broader strategy that this Administration clearly lacks," Warren wrote, clearly indicating that she would not rule out the use of tariffs if elected.

The subject of trade was raised only once by the moderators at last month's Democratic presidential debates. "We need to crack down on Chinese malfeasance in the trade relationship, but the tariffs and the trade war are the wrong way to go," offered Andrew Yang. "I think the president has been right to push back on China, but has done it in completely the wrong way," said Sen. Michael Bennet (D–Colo.). "Tariffs are taxes," Buttigieg said, before criticizing Trump for being "fixated on the China relationship as if all that mattered was the export balance on dishwashers."

That was basically the extent of the discussion.

Will anything change this week? Partially, that will depend on the questions being asked. The first debate appeared intentionally structured to sideline the incumbent as much as possible, giving the 20-member Democratic field an opportunity to clash with one another, rather than simply teaming-up to attack Trump.

Breaking into the open on an issue like trade will also require some courage from the candidates. Even before Trump came along, Democrats had turned away from the bipartisan consensus that had helped usher in the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s and that stood up to President George W. Bush in the 2000s when he flirted with steel protectionism. By the end of the Barack Obama administration, however, many Democrats (including Warren) were opposing a Democratic administration's attempt to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal meant as a bulwark against China.

What candidate might be willing to break with the party this week? Despite his previous comments, it probably won't be Biden. As the clear frontrunner in a crowded field, the former Veep has little to gain from putting a target on his back. He is likely to keep playing it safe until after the primaries. Instead, look for a candidate like former congressman Beto O'Rourke to make the pro-trade play. O'Rourke is sinking in the polls and probably seeking a breakout moment—and since trade with Mexico is so critical for the Texas economy, it would make sense for the Texas candidate to embrace the issue.

If they are not going to follow the polls, the Democratic candidates should at least be willing to follow the economic data showing that voters are right to favor trade agreements. A 2017 analysis by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a trade policy think tank, shows that international trade boosted American household incomes by about $18,000 per household since 1950—and that the gains flowed disproportionately to lower-income households. The Commerce Department says that more than 11 million American jobs are directly related to foreign investment or the export of American goods. And the mere existence of NAFTA boosts the U.S. economy by about 0.5 percent per year. There is no doubt that the past half-century of increasingly freer trade has made America better off.

Polls show that a majority of voters recognize the many benefits of trade. But in a campaign in which Democrats seem determined to outdo one another with offers of "free" healthcare and "free" college tuition, free trade may get ignored.

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    1. No indeed. Not even close.

  1. Isn’t using a firm named survey monkey racist?

    1. Right? It’s current year. Go with the firm Simian of Surveys.

  2. It doesn’t really matter to me whether people are failing to notice important differences between the two parties on trade because they’re genuinely ignorant or because they’re being willfully obtuse. Either way, they’re wrong–for embarrassing reasons.

    The Democrats are fundamentally hostile to free trade. They oppose free trade for the same reasons they oppose capitalism. They don’t want people to be free to make choices for themselves within the context of domestic markets. Why should that change when they’re considering the question internationally?

    The Republicans, on the other hand, generally speaking, are not fundamentally hostile to trade on principle so much as they’re hostile to China. Meanwhile, there are legitimate grievances a free trader might have with China–with their practices on forced technology transfers being an excellent example. If you like free trade, there’s certainly nothing for you to like about China’s forced technology transfers.

    I opposed Trump’s tariffs, but I’ll be glad he implemented them (for a period of time) if he’s able to use that leverage to secure a better deal for us on intellectual property protections–and the tariffs on both sides are subsequently dropped. Regardless, I see no reason to pretend that there isn’t any difference between Democrats and Republicans on trade–certainly not because they’re both hostile towards China.

    1. “I opposed Trump’s tariffs, but I’ll be glad he implemented them (for a period of time) if he’s able to use that leverage to secure a better deal for us on intellectual property protections–and the tariffs on both sides are subsequently dropped”

      A reasonable position to take. Bit some, like Boehm, can’t countenance the idea of ‘Orange Man Good’.

    2. If intellectual property is the issue let Google, Apple and the rest of Silicon Valley can pay for these. What the fuck does steel and a bevy of other products have to do with intellectual property. Why should I pay in order to support some of the biggest companies in America who volunteered to give their property to the Chinese? They made those deals so let them deal with the consequence. Also you forgot to include the EU, Mexico and Canada tariffs which obviously have nothing to do with China IP and everything to do with Trumps idea that the trade deficit is bad.

      1. Why should we pay income, payroll, and FICA taxes that artificially inflate the price of goods produced in the US so that other countries can enjoy exporting their goods here duty free?

        1. Yeah I am against them too. Still doesn’t explain why I should pay for Silicon Valley getting in bed with communists and believing they would respect private property. Next you’ll say we should bail out wall street for making bad trades. Who else gets a bail out? The idiot who thinks he just bought the Brooklyn Bridge?

      2. “If intellectual property is the issue let Google, Apple and the rest of Silicon Valley can pay for these.”

        It isn’t just those companies. It’s every company that does anything in China. It’s even things like manufacturing techniques. The guys who sell widgets are forced to transfer that technology to their competitors in China if they want to sell widgets in China, which is indefensible from the perspective of a trade agreement. We don’t do anything like that to Chinese companies who want to sell things here. They shouldn’t do that to American companies who want to sell things there.

  3. A majority of Americans say they favor free trade. But both major parties are moving in the other direction.

    I’m guessing because a majority of Americans have a highly nuanced view of free trade.

    1. I’m guessing because a majority of Americans have a schizophrenic view of free trade.


  4. Betteridge’s law of headlines

  5. The number of voters who have been harmed by free trade has reached the critical mass where they can elect a president. I predict the next president be they Democrat or Republican will have expressed opposition to free trade.

  6. Free trade is less popular than this article implies. People don’t like to see prices rise, but there are plenty of people who got their jobs shipped to China who would like to see “made in America” get some sort of advantage. It may not be smart, but it has some voter appeal now.

  7. “It may not be smart, but it has some voter appeal now.”

    Would those be the same voters who think the government’s giving them money when their tax refund check comes in the mail?

  8. Democrats and free trade?
    You guys never cease to crack me up.

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