March 9, 2020
I have written about the Democratic presidential candidates' views on trade before, but I was asked about it so many times last week that I decided to return to it again in this week's column. The interest probably grows out of the fact that we are now down to two main candidates and that trade is a clear area of difference between them. In fact, Senator Sanders (I-VT) has now begun to criticize former vice president Biden for his trade views and for his past votes in favor of NAFTA and China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
This will be a clear area of debate between the two, so trade policy may finally get its due. Whether it remains an issue in the general election depends on who the Democratic nominee is. As much as the president will want to brag about his trade policy, it would be difficult for him to do so if Sanders is the nominee because their views are so similar. If Biden is the nominee, then we will see trade occupy a prominent place in the campaign because their world views are fundamentally different.
My colleague at CSIS, Jack Caporal, has done an excellent more detailed analysis of Biden's trade policy, which can be found here. In essence, he would follow substantially in the path of all U.S. presidents since Franklin Roosevelt except for the current one. The main reason for that is that Biden, like the others, sees trade as part of the larger issue of the United States’ role in the world. Rather than looking at it simply as a job creator or loser, he sees trade as one of the tools the U.S. government uses to project its global leadership. And in that regard, Biden has a long record as a multilateralist who sees the United States as the world's leader in support of peace, democracy, and the rule of law. Like many whose formative years were during the Cold War, he is acutely aware that democracy and freedom do not come cheap and must be constantly defended if they are to survive.
That defense is not just at home but sometimes far away—too far away according to his critics—and it is grounded not in unilateral action but in the building of coalitions and collective structures that help like-minded nations work together. An internationalist economic policy is part and parcel of that world view.
He also seems aware of the fact that 95 percent of the world's consumers are outside the United States, so if it wants to grow, it will be by reaching out to them rather than closing itself off. That does not make him a classical free trader—he gives the same obeisance to labor and environment issues that all Democrats do, but his years in the Senate show a record of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good and a willingness to accept incremental progress.
Sanders, on the other hand, has rarely found a trade agreement he can support and does not appear to put trade into a larger geopolitical framework. His approach resembles President Trump’s at times in his belief that access to the U.S. market is a privilege other countries should pay more for (in his case by adopting progressive measures on the environment, worker rights, and human rights as opposed to Trump's focus on reducing bilateral trade deficits). He was one of only ten senators to oppose the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and he has promised to renegotiate it if elected, even though there is no enthusiasm in either party for doing that. He believes our past trade agreements benefit big corporations at the expense of workers and the environment. While he has not attacked multilateral organizations the way Trump has, he does not seem all that interested in reinforcing them.
So, how would Sanders and Biden differ as president? One area where they agree is on China, acknowledging that the president has diagnosed the problem correctly but has failed to solve it, causing a lot of collateral damage in the process. Both will take a hard line, but neither will do any better than Trump at wringing serious concessions from the Chinese and thus will face the dilemma of what to do about the tariffs, which the Democrats have generally decried but offered no serious alternative to. Both would likely continue trade talks with the European Union and the United Kingdom, which do not have the environmental and labor sensitivities of other countries, and both would work to restore the WTO's viability. Biden would keep the USMCA and try to find a way back to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if only as a means of countering China. Sanders would seek to renegotiate the former and ignore the latter. Biden would be open to other trade deals; Sanders would be less interested. These are not small differences.
I recently saw a piece of Sanders campaign literature. It had a long list of issues where Sanders was the opposite of Trump and where Biden was the same as Trump. I noticed that trade was not mentioned at all. And, of course, it is one issue where Trump and Sanders have much in agreement. Whether it is enough to persuade blue collar workers to abandon Biden for Sanders is an interesting question. We may see part of the answer in tomorrow's Michigan primary.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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