The Politics of Trade: Do the Right Thing or Do the Smart Thing?

The end of the year is a time for reflection on what has been happening and forecasting what is to come. It is the natural time to do that, but it is also pragmatic—not much is happening as the country heads into the holidays, so the front burner is fairly empty. Consider that an alert that this column, along with the next several, are going to fall into the reflection and forecast category rather than the commentary on current events category. This week, I focus on the politics of trade, both because the election is looming and because Ed Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), whom I frequently cite in this column, is out with new PPI poll results.

The polls, taken in September and October, asked people with less than a college education a variety of questions, but I am going to focus on those related to trade. Besides, the conclusions from the economic questions were that the working class has not improved its lot over the past 40 years, and inflation is a big issue, neither of which is a surprise. Note that the respondents are not “all voters” or “all Americans,” but are specifically working-class Americans. Other polls have found that college-educated respondents are more positive about trade than their non-college-educated counterparts. The following chart summarizes the findings.

Remote Visualization

Overall, all respondents split 29 percent positive, 35 percent negative, and 36 percent not much either way. The more detailed breakdown provides some interesting conclusions:

  • Non-White respondents were more positive about trade (though White respondents made up 70 percent of the survey results, by far the largest group).
  • Liberals were more positive than conservatives.
  • Young people were more positive than old people, and those in-between were, well, in-between.
  • The “no difference” group was surprisingly large in all the categories.

And, on a side note, the Trump-proposed 10 percent global tariff was the least popular of several policy options provided, with only 23 percent supporting it.

So, what are the political messages here? Liberals and Democrats are more supportive of trade than their conservative counterparts, suggesting that the Biden administration, in catering to its left wing, is out of step with the mainstream of its party. On the Republican side, the Trump influence is clear—what was for the past 70 years a party of free trade and free-market economics has become the party of protection, in a sense a return to its nineteenth-century roots.

Will these findings have any impact on the election? Almost certainly not. Trump’s views on trade have been the same for 40 years. There is no likelihood they are going to change, and it is clear few in the Republican party are willing to buck him on this issue. On the Democratic side, the Biden administration seems to have cast its lot with its trade-skeptical left wing. While the president’s rhetoric is different, his trade policies are not that far apart from Trump’s, and I have no expectation that will change between now and the election. They seem guided by their conviction that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which is wrong—and are determined not to repeat that.

That raises an interesting question: Is Biden running on trade as a more polite version of Donald Trump the best Democratic strategy? There are three ways to look at that. First, poll data suggests it might not be, that the Democratic base is actually in a different place and would be more responsive to a pro-trade message. Second, it doesn’t matter because trade is not top of mind for voters and will not be next November, and there is ample data to support that. When you ask people what the United States’ biggest problems are, trade has been at or near the bottom for more than 10 years. In 2024, inflation will clearly be number one in voters’ minds. It makes more sense for Biden to differentiate himself from Trump on issues people are most concerned about rather than items at the bottom of their list. Third, from the perspective of good policy and good leadership, one can argue for a more enlightened pro-trade strategy. Good leaders take people where they want to go; great leaders take them where they need to go. The Biden administration is giving up on great leadership in the interest of getting reelected, and since reelection is the obvious goal, that is probably the correct strategy. That leaves those of us looking for greatness hoping to find it in a second term, which may also turn out to be wishful thinking.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.