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Democrats Already Have a Position on Tariffs... If You Know Where to Look

While Trump loudly escalates his trade war with China, most 2020 contenders are muted—and that's a mistake.

Win McNamee/Getty

Donald Trump’s trade war with China is not going well. Weeks after assuring people that trade negotiations between the two countries were on the “five yard line,” a sheepish Larry Kudlow, Trump’s chief economic adviser, admitted on Sunday that we may be months away from a deal, if not longer. Markets tumbled Monday after China increased tariffs on $60 billion of products from the United States in response to the Trump administration’s decision to raise tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods. (Though indices rebounded some on Tuesday, most are still down for the month.) Farmers, including many in electoral battleground states like Iowa, are growing frustrated with the president; net farm income in 2018 “fell to levels last seen during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s,” according to agricultural economists Brent Gloy and David Widmar. “I was very patient a year ago,” Phil Ramsey, an Indiana farmer who voted for Trump in 2016, told The New York Times last week. “I’ve gone from being very patient to being very anxious.” To top it all off, the president either doesn’t understand how tariffs work or is repeatedly lying about their impact on American consumers.

The bungled trade war with China should be an opportunity for Democrats. But on the campaign trail, even in agriculture-heavy states like Iowa, most presidential candidates are focusing on other subjects—talking about health care, wages, and farm consolidation more than trade, even as the conflict with China has escalated. Concerned about being seen as too close to the trade policies that doomed Hillary Clinton in the upper midwest in 2016, candidates face a challenge: They don’t want to side with the president’s tariff tantrum, but they also don’t want to appear to endorse the unpopular approach to free trade represented by agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“There will be virtual unanimity that tariffs are bad, but there will also be a strong view that we have to get tough on China and that going forward we need better trade deals,” one Democratic strategist told the Financial Times in March. “On both of those propositions, Democrats will be saying things that at least on the face [of it] don’t sound too different from Trump.” But the answer to this conundrum is in front of them. If Democrats want to challenge the president on trade, they should look to the Rust Belt.

It’s understandable why Democrats are wary to take on trade. On November 8, 2016, the party watched in horror as its fabled blue wall crumbled. Wisconsin, which had not voted for a Republican president since 1984, went red. Pennsylvania and Michigan each voted for a Republican for the first time since 1988. While Trump’s support among rural white voters is complex, his loudly stated opposition to globalization and the free trade deals embraced by Republicans and Democrats over the past four decades played a pivotal role in winning states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

For Trump, trade was the root cause of American decline. To an extent, it was an argument that summed up his candidacy: Trade represented a bipartisan failure that only an outsider could remedy. “Throughout history, at the center of any thriving country has been a thriving manufacturing sector,” Trump wrote in USA Today in March of 2016. “But under decades of failed leadership, the United States has gone from being the globe’s manufacturing powerhouse—the envy of the world—through a rapid deindustrialization that has evaporated entire communities.” During the general election, he was able to paint Hillary Clinton—whose husband, President Bill Clinton, signed NAFTA—as the embodiment of the bipartisan consensus on trade that had hollowed out the American middle-class.

President Trump had hoped that his trade policies in general—and more specifically the trade war with China—would carry his populist advantage into the midterms. Instead, Democrats made significant gains in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. “Trump tried hard to make the 2018 elections about him, telling voters repeatedly to act as if he were on the ballot,” the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib wrote last November. “More striking, though, is the extent to which Trump trade policies—decrying existing free-trade agreements, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, imposing steel tariffs on trading partners and launching a virtual trade war with China—didn’t translate into electoral success in the states that seemed most likely to be grateful for steps designed to protect traditional industrial areas of the country.”

Still, there is broad agreement among the Democratic candidates—with the possible exception of Joe Biden—that a return to the free trade approach previously adopted by the leaders of both parties is not possible. But there is not a clear message from the party about how the U.S. should deal with China, or with free trade more broadly.

During a recent appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Kamala Harris told Jake Tapper that the trade war was a reflection of the increasing isolation the U.S. encountered under Trump. “This president and this administration have failed to understand that we are stronger when we work with our allies on every issue, China included,” she said, later specifying that the country should address “the threat [China] presents to our economy, the threat it presents to American workers.” Of course, the TPP, which Harris opposes, was—as presented, anyway—an attempt to work with allies to diminish the threat of China’s growing economy.

But Democrats need not be so timid. Take a look at Rust Belt Democrats who haven’t thrown their hat in the ring, like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. In 2018, when neighboring midwestern senators went up for reelection—like North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp—and lost despite their attacks on Trump’s trade policies, Brown was re-elected with over 60 percent of the vote. One reason: His strident opposition to free trade. Unlike the 2020 contenders, moreover, he’s not concerned when his message overlaps with that of the president. “I will get a number of Trump voters because I fought for the things that Trump campaigned on, long before he did,’’ Brown told Bloomberg shortly before the election. “My position on trade is the mainstream position for the country.’’ Brown has, throughout his political career, been a vocal opponent of trade deals like NAFTA and TPP.

That’s not to say that Democrats shouldn’t fault Trump’s trade agenda, just that they need to be more precise in their critiques—and more vocal about who is affected by bad trade deals. “China cheats, and hurts American workers and farmers when they cheat,” Brown told the Columbus Dispatch in January. “I supported tariffs, but [Trump] has not done this right. He has not worked with our allies. If you do this with your allies, China knows you mean business right away, and you get them to the table faster.”

“Farmers generally don’t like tariffs,” Brown continued. “But farmers understand if you use them effectively and cleanly as [temporary] enforcement, you have a different outcome.” The problem, as the senator sees it, isn’t with the tariffs themselves, but how they are implemented.

Some Democratic candidates are seeking to outflank Trump on trade. Elizabeth Warren has tied trade to her anti-corruption message. “The president grabs headlines railing against GM’s plans to axe thousands of American jobs in Ohio and Michigan,” Warren said in a November speech, “but his actual policies aren’t stopping them or others like them from continuing to put corporate profits ahead of American workers.” Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, told CNBC on Tuesday, “The Trump administration has proven itself indifferent to labor rights, and apparently would prefer that American workers are reduced to the position of Chinese workers, rather than that labor everywhere enjoy basic protections and strong standard of living.”

But, in a larger sense, trade has yet to be a focal point for any major Democratic candidate in the race, and that seems like a mistake. Trump is more vulnerable than he appears on trade—if Democrats are willing to sound a little bit like him. Embracing an anti-trade message would take away one of the few face cards left in the president’s hand, and could position the Democratic Party to finish rebuilding their blue wall in 2020.