US trade policy up for grabs in presidential contest

US trade policy up for grabs in presidential contest

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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) billionaire activist Tom Steyer, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg participate in the seventh Democratic 2020 presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. (Reuters)

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday won the Nevada caucuses, making him the most likely — though not certain – Democratic candidate to compete with President Donald Trump for the White House in November. Competition between multiple candidates for the Democratic nomination has highlighted differences on key policy areas, including one critical to the global economy: US trade policy.

If Trump wins re-election, he has already proven willing to pull out of or renegotiate trade deals and use tariffs to pressure US trade partners. It is unlikely that a second Trump term would significantly change course on trade.

The greater uncertainty is what US trade policy might look like if a Democrat were to win the White House in November. The remaining Democratic candidates fall along a spectrum of views on trade, ranging from strongly pro-trade to deeply skeptical of free trade’s benefits.

None of the Democratic candidates or Trump totally oppose trade; the debates about trade focus more on the use of tariffs and trade deals and the extent to which Washington should pursue free trade versus protectionism. Leaders in both parties agree that trade is important to the US economy, but they also agree that advances in free trade and globalization in recent decades have hurt certain categories of US workers.

Among Democrats, there is strong agreement on the need to prioritize investing domestically, including in infrastructure. All the Democratic candidates talk about focusing more on economic development and job growth at home while also leading on global trade issues, but there is significant disagreement about how to balance those goals. Everyone agrees that it is important to confront some of China’s trade and currency practices, which Democrats and Republicans view as unfair, but there is disagreement over how to do this. 

The Democratic candidates who remain most clearly in favor of free trade and globalization overall are Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden. Bloomberg appears to take the most favorable view of free trade and globalization, reflecting his experience as an international businessman and mayor of New York City. He has criticized Trump for pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and said that the president’s tariffs have hurt American farmers and workers. 

Biden has a history of supporting key trade deals, including voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a senator and supporting TPP as vice president. As a candidate, he has been open to joining the TPP’s successor but he wants to renegotiate some of its terms. Biden has expressed support for potential future trade deals but wants to ensure that labor and environment representatives have a greater voice in negotiations. He has also said that Trump’s tariffs hurt American farmers and manufacturers. He emphasizes the need for the US to lead on global trade issues, particularly to work with partners to counter China. “Either China’s going to write the rules of the road for the 21st century on trade or we are,” Biden has said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren represents the middle ground on the Democratic spectrum regarding trade. She recognizes the benefits but also believes that some US trade policies have hurt American workers and damaged the environment, while benefiting the very wealthy. She has criticized the way that Trump uses tariffs but also says they can be “an important tool.” She voted for the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA — after Democrats won revisions but opposed TPP. 

Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar have said much less about trade issues but appear fairly close to Warren. Buttigieg has expressed a need for US leadership on trade issues but believes Americans need to reconsider their approach toward trade deals. Klobuchar has criticized the way that Trump has used tariffs but also sees them as a potentially valuable tool against China. She voted for the revised USMCA. 

Sanders stands alone in the Democratic field with his long-standing antipathy toward the idea of free trade. He has long accused US trade policy of hurting domestic workers, forcing them to compete with “desperate and low-wage labor around the world.” He opposed NAFTA, the USMCA and TPP, among other trade deals. His campaign website promises that he would “fundamentally rewrite all of our trade deals to prevent the outsourcing of American jobs and raise wages.” Sanders has criticized some of Trump’s tariffs but also sees tariffs as a valid tool. Sanders has also highlighted environmental concerns and vowed that he would “not vote for a trade agreement that does not incorporate very, very strong principles to significantly lower fossil fuel emissions.” 

Sanders stands alone in the Democratic field with his long-standing antipathy toward the idea of free trade.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Notably, the growing skepticism of trade among leading Democratic candidates, especially Sanders, is not representative of Democratic voters or the broader American public. Gallup polling from February 2019 found that 74 percent of Americans see trade as good for economic growth. Gallup also found that slightly more Democrats than Republicans support trade, with 79 percent of Democrats viewing it as an opportunity for economic growth.

If the next president is either Trump or Sanders, the world should be prepared for US leadership that is skeptical of free trade and very willing to use tariffs. If one of the other Democratic candidates becomes the nominee and wins the presidency, there might be a return to trade policy that is more in line with previous US thinking on the subject — though with an increased focus on protecting workers and the environment. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years' experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch 
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