Trade Policy on the 2020 Campaign Trail: The Third Debate
September 17, 2019
Over the course of the election cycle, the Scholl Chair will be providing regular analysis of trade’s place in the national dialogue. Read our first two post-debate briefs here and here.
The third Democratic debate hinted that—despite the criticism of President Trump’s approach to China—there may be some support for tariffs on Chinese products among the Democratic candidates for president. Overall, however, vagueness continued to dominate the debate over trade policy and China, as candidates fell into familiar camps and talking points. Knocking President Trump for the lack of an overarching China strategy, his erratic application of tariffs, and doing more to harm average Americans than help them remained the preferred lines of attack for most of the candidates.
On China, and tariffs on Chinese goods in particular, the debate cried for refinement. Candidates openly embraced the use of tariffs on Chinese goods to generate leverage with Beijing (while still bashing President Trump for his volatility), outlined a policy that could include tariffs, or failed to outright denounce them. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and entrepreneur Andrew Yang both made clear that their China strategy would include tariffs. Buttigieg did concede that while tariffs are useful to generate leverage, they do harm the United States and added some nuance that set him apart from the rest of the field by arguing that “the entire China challenge” is larger than the question of whether tariffs should be part of the government’s China strategy.
Others hinted that their China trade policy could include tariffs or some form of trade pressure or opted not to explicitly denounce the current tariffs. Senator Elizabeth Warren did not specifically mention tariffs or China but suggested that the United States could “leverage” access to its market in trade negotiations. This line of thinking is similar to that employed by the Trump administration. After steel and aluminum tariffs were announced in March 2018, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro claimed, “I don’t believe any country in the world is going to retaliate for the simple reason we are the most lucrative and biggest market in the world.” That claim has proven to be wrong. Fast-forward to the debate stage, where Senator Warren said, “And you asked the question about leverage. If I can just respond to that one, the leverage, are you kidding? Everybody wants access to the American market. 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.’”
Senator Bernie Sanders likewise hinted that he would take a confrontational stance toward China by harkening back to his opposition to granting China Permanent Normal Trade Relations. Senator Kamala Harris claimed on the one hand that she is “not a protectionist Democrat” while on the other said it is necessary to hold China “accountable” for its theft of U.S. companies’ intellectual property and dumping of products into the U.S. market.
Senator Cory Booker and Senator Amy Klobuchar denounced President Trump’s decision to hit U.S. allies like Canada with tariffs but pivoted to the need to build coalitions to take on China instead of taking a clear stance for or against the use of tariffs on Chinese goods. Former Vice President Joe Biden seized on that argument as well and rehashed the classic Trans-Pacific Partnership talking point: if the United States doesn’t organize and lead its allies in writing the trade rules for the twenty-first century, China will.
The vagueness or outright embrace of tariffs on China appears to be out of step with voters in general and Democratic voters in particular. A 2019 survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that just 30 percent of Democratic voters and 50 percent of all voters support tariffs on Chinese products. Nearly 75 percent of Republicans surveyed support tariffs on Chinese products. More generally, 74 percent of respondents favor trade with China. The Chicago Council survey also tallied record support for international trade among American voters. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said international trade is good for the U.S. economy, and 83 percent replied that trade is good for American companies. That said, candidates who associate themselves with tariffs or otherwise “tough” trade policy may not find themselves in hot water with voters. Trade continues to be at the bottom of voters’ concerns, according to a September 2019 poll commissioned by CNN and conducted by SSRS.
Who’s Got a Plan?
Ahead of the third debate, former Representative Beto O’Rourke released a detailed trade platform, which we analyzed in-depth here. O’Rourke lays out a multilateral approach to take on China that emphasizes working through and updating the WTO. Like other candidates, he seeks to elevate labor and environmental issues in free trade agreements and enhance trade enforcement. CSIS also previously analyzed Senator Warren’s trade plan, which can be seen here.
What They’re Saying
“We’re either going to make policy or China’s going to make the rules of the road. We make up 25 percent of the world economy. We need another 25 percent to join us.”
“We cannot go up against China alone. This is a president that has a better relationship with dictators, like Duterte and Putin, than he does with Merkel and Macron. We are the strongest nation on the planet Earth, and our strength is multiplied and magnified when we stand with our allies in common cause and common purpose. That’s how we beat China.”
“I would have a strategy that would include the tariffs as leverage, but it’s not about the tariffs. 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.”
“I would immediately begin to negotiate with China to ratchet down that trade war. We have leverage there.”
“I would not repeal the tariffs on day one, but I would let the Chinese know that we need to hammer out a deal.”
“I am not a protectionist Democrat. Look, we need to sell our stuff. And that means we need to sell it to people overseas. That means we need trade policies that allow that to happen.”
“And, yes, we want fair trade, but we must work with the rest of the world. And [Trump] has made a mockery of focused trade policy, which I think means enforcement.”
“What we have got to do is develop a trade policy that represents workers, represents the farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere, who are losing billions right now because of Trump’s policy, a trade policy which understands that if a company shuts down in America and goes abroad, and then thinks they’re going to get online to get a lucrative federal contract, under Bernie Sanders, they got another guess coming.”
“Everybody wants access to the American market. 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.”
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jack Caporal is an associate fellow with the CSIS Scholl Chair in International Business
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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