Democratic Convention 2020

Did Joe Biden and the Democratic National Convention Forget About Trump's Tariffs?

The last time an incumbent president was defeated, the fact that he'd raised taxes on Americans played a major role. Trump's done the same thing, but the DNC didn't talk about it.


At this year's Democratic National Convention, which wrapped up on Thursday night after more than eight hours of prime time political infomercials, organizers found only a couple of minutes in which to criticize Trump's tariff policies.

Rick Telesz, a soybean farmer from Pennsylvania, made a brief appearance via webcam on Monday night to say he voted for Trump in 2016 but wouldn't do so again. Trump's trade war, Telesz said, threatened the existence of his farm. As Reason has noted several times, soybean farmers have been hit particularly hard by the trade war—prior to 2018, China was by far the largest consumer of American soybeans, but China retaliated by sharply reducing those totals.

"Trade tariffs with China have just been horrible," Iowa farmer Dan Ryner said in a pre-recorded video segment shown during the DNC's broadcast on Wednesday night.

That's it.

Sure, highlighting the damage that Trump's trade war has done to America's farmers makes sense, but that's hardly the whole story. Farmers like Telesz and Ryner got whacked by China's retaliation against Trump's tariffs. But there are plenty of blue-collar Americans harmed directly by the tariffs—which have increased the cost of imported aluminum, steel, and thousands of other products used in just about every aspect of manufacturing. If the Biden campaign couldn't find them, they weren't looking very hard.

More likely, the decision to downplay the trade war was a deliberate one. Biden's acceptance speech tonight did not even mention the words "trade" or "tariffs" a single time. And that's coming from a politician who is just about the closest thing to an ardent free trader that you're likely to find in the Democratic Party. Biden supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which lowered tariff rates across the continent, when he was a member of the Senate. He was a lead cheerleader for the Obama Administration's ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal that would have lowered tariff rates for trade between the United States and a dozen other countries around the Pacific rim.

Biden had attacked Trump's trade policies during the early stages of the primary campaign but has not emphasized them of late. Earlier this month, it appeared that Biden promised to scrap Trump's tariffs on Chinese imports, but his campaign quickly clarified that he hadn't meant it that way.

It's possible that Democrats don't see the trade war as a useful wedge issue, even in the key Rust Belt states they hope to take back from Trump this year. It's also possible that Biden and his team are hoping to avoid making the tariffs a major issue so they can use the now-greatly-expanded tariff powers that Trump will leave behind. Maybe they figure the mishandled pandemic and high unemployment are enough to sink Trump's reelection prospects.

Yet the last time an incumbent president was defeated, the fact that he'd raised taxes on Americans played a major role in the Democratic Party's pitch to voters.

About one in four voters surveyed by exit pollers in 1992 said President George H. W. Bush's decision to raise taxes was "very important" to their decision. "Of those, about two-thirds voted for" Bill Clinton, The New York Times reported at the time.

As Democrats try to unseat another incumbent president in 2020, they had an opportunity to pull a page from that same playbook. Tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump during his term have raised taxes on American consumers and businesses by about $57 billion annually.

The comparison between Bush's tax increases and Trump's tariffs is not a perfect one. Bush had promised not to raise taxes when he won his first term in 1988, while Trump had talked about using tariffs in the run-up to the 2016 election. The taxes Bush hiked—to help reduce a budget deficit that surged to the quaint level of $200 billion—were more visible than the cost of Trump's tariffs, which get passed along supply chains and don't show up on a tax return.

Regardless, Americans are missing out by not having a major party presidential candidate who makes the economically and historically sound argument for lower tariffs and more trade as a key to prosperity.