Where Are the Democrats?
June 10, 2019
As the year wears on, I have increasingly been asked, where are the Democrats on trade? Some of the time that is a reference to congressional Democrats as they wrestle with the United States-Canada-Mexico Trade Agreement, but most of the time it is about the presidential candidates. One would think they have an incentive to talk about it. They all have a need to talk about anything that will set them apart from the rest of the pack, and Trump has made trade a signature issue of his administration, and one he will undoubtedly campaign on. Yet while the candidates have not been completely silent on the subject, it has not dominated the debate and probably will not until there is a nominee who will have to go head to head with the president on it.
Their reticence is largely because trade has been a divisive issue for Democrats. Demographically, the party's base is young people and minorities, who are the most pro-trade, pro-globalization part of our population. Politically, the party is still tight with organized labor leaders, who have been major trade skeptics for at least the past 30 years. Even though Trump got a large share of union workers' votes, the leadership remains close to the Democratic Party and provides substantial organizational and financial support. (No surprise there, if you look at what the Republican Party has tried to do to labor unions for years. The surprise is that workers are willing to put trade over their own organizational survival.) As a result, candidates have to walk a fine line if they don't want to alienate one side or the other.
One way they all do it is by focusing on the president's implementation of his policy rather than the policy itself. In other words, he's got the right idea but is doing it wrong, particularly on China, where right diagnosis, wrong prescription, has been a common theme, even among some Republicans. This is most evident with the president's frequent use of tariffs, which are broadly unpopular. Focusing on tactics rather than strategy can be effective because it allows them to attack without ever saying what they would do if they were in Trump's shoes.
Another common element of Democratic criticism that is slightly more forward-leaning is to attack Trump's failure to build alliances and his predilection for irritating the very people we need on our side in taking on China, the universally acknowledged biggest challenge. Beto O’Rourke said it most succinctly when he asked, “. . . when have we ever gone to war, including a trade war, without allies.”
In the end, however, that won't get them far enough. They will have to say what they would do. Those who have begun to venture down that path tend to divide, predictably, between the progressives and the centrists. The clearest, and loudest, so far is Bernie Sanders, who has already been down this road once. While his attacks on Trump have been ferocious—like when he said, “In 2016, Trump promised he would substantially reduce the trade deficit, stop the outsourcing of American jobs, and rip up NAFTA. He lied about all three”—he has also been clear that he is as much a trade skeptic as Trump, and if he were president, he would do the same thing, only better.
Another clear voice on the left is Elizabeth Warren, who is interesting because she puts trade in a larger context while also criticizing the administration’s implementation. She attacked recent U.S. trade policy by stating it “prioritized the interests of capital over the interests of American workers." For her, free trade is one more way large corporations cheat the workers. While the immediate solution is to have trade agreements that protect workers and the environment more effectively, the real solution is to get big companies to treat their workers, and customers, better. And for that, you need the force of the state.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, is positioning himself more in the center. Of course, he doesn't have much of a choice. Having been Obama's vice president for eight years, he is inevitably identified with his policies. (That, incidentally, might be a bit unfair. The vice president's main job is supporting the president whether he agrees with him or not. There is no better example than Mike Pence, a confirmed free trader in Congress and as governor of Indiana, now loyally defending the Trump line.) Even so, Biden voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement and is clearly a confirmed multilateralist who emphasizes the advantages of trade while paying the usual obeisance to worker interests. If he sticks to his position, he will effectively distinguish himself from other current front runners.
And what about all the others? They're still out there, and some, like Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke, and John Hickenlooper, will be competing for the center while others will straddle the issue and simply try to avoid irritating anybody. Most voters want authenticity more than anything else, so the straddlers may not get very far, but the voters also want authentic candidates who agree with them, and what "they" think remains to be seen. One thing that is certain is that while trade may be a big issue in the general election, thanks to the president, it may be less so in the battle for the Democratic nomination. The reason why the candidates will spend more time talking about health care, the economy (which is beginning to sag), and climate change is because Democratic voters care more about those things. And that is probably as it should be. You can also be sure this will not be my last column on the subject, and I will look at the candidates again once some of the smoke clears, and there are fewer of them.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The author would like to give special thanks to intern Isabella Frymoyer for her research that supported this column.
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).
© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.