Thursday's debate between the 10 leading Democratic presidential candidates showed that many of them are still struggling to define how they would handle trade policy differently than President Donald Trump.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang—who otherwise had an excellent debate, and whose response to a question about immigration was the standout moment of the night—provided the best illustration of the Democrats' struggles. He had the first shot at responding to moderator George Stephanopoulos' question about whether the candidates onstage would repeal Trump's tariffs on their first day in office.
Yang fumbled the answer.
"I would not repeal the tariffs on day one, but I would let the Chinese know that we need to hammer out a deal," said Yang. He did acknowledge that Trump's trade war is "pummeling producers and farmers in Iowa who have absolutely nothing to do with the imbalances that we have with China," but apparently a Yang administration would force those same people to keep suffering in pursuit of "a deal that addresses the concerns of American companies and American producers."
That sounds good, but it's unclear how tariffs will help make it happen. Trump's year-long experiment with using tariffs to get China to negotiate has accomplished nothing so far.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg had the second crack at the tariff question, and he opened with the most obvious of observations. "Well, the president clearly has no strategy," he said.
But what would Buttigieg do differently? He would, uh, have a strategy.
"I would have a strategy that would include the tariffs as leverage, but it's not about the tariffs," Buttigieg said. "Look, what's going on right now is a president who has reduced the entire China challenge into a question of tariffs, when what we know is that the tariffs are coming down on us more than anybody else and there's a lack of a bigger strategy."
He's right that there is more to a trade negotiation than merely taxing imports and expecting that to change behavior, and that the current administration's strategy is severely lacking. But Buttigieg's answer was also a reversal from his promise in May to lift the "counterproductive tariffs" if elected. Now, rather than seeing the tariffs as "counterproductive," he apparently would use them for leverage?
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL–Minn.) has previously defended Trump's decision to put tariffs on imported steel—Minnesota is home to a significant iron ore mining industry—and in 2106 she sponsored legislation to impose a 226 percent tariff on Chinese-made steel. That's why it's hard to take her seriously on trade, though she did make a good point about the importance of American exports, which have been crushed by the trade war.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) said Trump "doesn't have a clue" about trade but gave little indication that he does. Former Vice President Joe Biden continued to back away from his pro-trade past, saying he would "organize the world to take on China." Julian Castro said he would "negotiate with China" but had little substance beyond that. Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) said he would work with America's allies to change China's behavior—which is a good idea, but also incomplete. And Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) declared that she is "not a protectionist Democrat," which would have been a more noteworthy moment if she didn't follow it up with a strange, half-finished thought comparing Trump to the Wizard of Oz.
That leaves Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), who continues to be the only Democratic candidate with a fully developed trade policy—one that, essentially, promises to more competently impose Trump's protectionist ideology.
On Thursday night, Warren used her time to demagogue against "giant corporations" writing trade policies and reiterated her own plans to impose what she's previously called "economic patriotism." In response to the actual question—about whether she would tariffs as leverage—Warren sounded almost Trumpian.
"Are you kidding? Everybody wants access to the American market," Warren said. "That means that we have the capacity to say right here in America, 'You want to come sell goods to American consumers? Then you got to raise your standards. You've got to raise your labor standards. You've got to raise your environmental standards.'"
But other countries' environmental and labor standards improve because they trade with more developed nations. And Warren's plan to extract better terms for American workers by withholding access to the American market would be a disaster for consumers.
Why are the Democratic candidates not doing more to appeal to the pro-trade part of the electorate? I think there are three reasons.
First, they likely assume that polls showing that Democratic voters favor trade can be ignored without negative consequences. Those poll numbers are driven at least in part by negative partisanship—if a Republican president is being protectionist, Democratic voters say they want the opposite—rather than deeply held convictions. In other words, the Democrats are betting that being the not-Trump candidate in the general election probably carries more weight with those newly pro-trade Democratic voters than any specific stances on trade issues.
Second, Democrats hoping to unseat Trump probably see the Rust Belt as key to winning a close election, since that's how Trump narrowly won the White House in 2016. They may think that taking an unabashedly pro-trade stance would give Trump another opportunity to rouse support from disaffected factory workers, and would allow the president to demagogue against trade as being a threat to American industry. But Trump is likely to do that anyway, no matter how much protectionism his general election opponent promises. Indeed, he's already started doing it.
Finally, there is Trump's scrambling of traditional political alignments. Republicans did flirt with protectionism under both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but the GOP has generally been a more pro-trade party in recent decades than the Democratic Party. Warren might be ramping things up to a higher level, but hearing a leading Democrat call for restricting trade based on environmental and labor standards in other countries is far more ordinary than having a Republican president who so openly disdains global trade.
Trump has stolen the Democratic playbook on this issue, and that has left the left scrambling to figure out how to respond. Thursday night made clear that the leading candidates still have work to do.