- Trump has put Democratic presidential hopefuls in an awkward spot through his efforts to pressure China to change practices that put Americans at a disadvantage.
- At the third Democratic primary debate Thursday night, the question of how to reclaim that playbook on trade was on full display.
- But the trade war has also presented challenges for Trump, whose most recent polls suggest Americans are growing worried about tariffs.
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For the 2020 Democratic hopefuls who have sought to challenge President Donald Trump on an economy that has consistently been one of his strongest arguments for reelection, trade has put them in an awkward spot.
Democrats have historically favored a far tougher stance on trade than Republicans, arguing stricter regulations were necessary to protect American workers against the pitfalls of globalization. But Trump turned those party norms upside down over the past year as he turned up pressure on major trading partners through sweeping tariffs and other punitive measures.
The question of how to reclaim that playbook was on full display at the third Democratic primary debate Thursday night, as some of the top 10 presidential candidates stumbled over how to address perceived trade aggressions in China.
“It’s clear that the Democrats realize that the old center-left version of ‘here’s the next trade deal, better than the last one’ is way past its sell-by date,” said Jared Bernstein, a top economic adviser in the Obama administration. “But we didn’t hear enough coherent plans on alternatives to Trump’s damaging trade war.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana and entrepreneur Andrew Yang said they would at least initially keep in place the tariffs Trump levied on China if elected, arguing that they remained an important tool in negotiations.
“I would have a strategy that would include the tariffs as leverage, but it’s not about the tariffs,” Buttigieg said. “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.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts echoed plans to maintain a protectionist approach toward China, saying “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.”
‘None of the Democratic candidates have anything solid to offer on trade, and that worries us’
Other Democrats have said they would lift the tariffs on thousands of imports but it remained unclear what specific types of leverage they would use to win concessions on practices that put Americans at a disadvantage. The Trump administration has struggled since early 2018 to get China to budge on key issues including intellectual property theft and the forced transfer of foreign technology.
“They seem content to take shots at the president without a plan for how they’re going to bring China to the table and get a deal,” David Kochel, a Trump critic and longtime Republican operative who has advised campaigns for Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, said of the candidates. “Someone needs to describe the end game and how we get there.”
Trump has for a majority of his time in office polled better on the economy than on his overall performance as president. But signs of trouble on that front have emerged, with a recent poll showing an increasing number of Americans were worried about his trade policies and would blame them in the event of a recession.
“The tariff issue is being felt here in Wisconsin, an absolute must have state for the Republicans,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin, a battleground state Trump won by razor-thin margins in 2016. “Last night any swing voters who were paying attention saw a field full of responsible grownups who can get the job President Trump is failing to do done.”
Trump has drawn increasing backlash from Republicans as tariffs increase prices and China tweets jolt financial markets. It has also tested the loyalty of farmers who helped elect Trump in 2016. While those in the agricultural sector have borne the brunt of losses from retaliatory measures, they have so far been reluctant to support another candidate.
“Trump is losing support among ag in the Midwest over trade and biofuels, and a few other smaller issues. Folks are looking for an alternative, but none exist that are ag-friendly,” said Dave Walton, a soybean farmer in Iowa. “None of the Democratic candidates have anything solid to offer on trade, and that worries us.”