Trade Policy on the 2020 Trail



William A. Reinsch, Jack Caporal, Beverly Lobo, & Catherine Tassin de Montaigu | Center For Strategic and International Studies

So far, most of the candidates stick to criticizing President Trump’s policies without being too specific about what they would do instead. A few brave ones have laid out their views more comprehensively, and that number will surely increase as debate amongst them sharpens. Criticism of the president’s trade policy falls into two buckets: criticism of the policy itself and criticism of how the policy is implemented.

Relative trade skeptics, who agree with much of the content of the president’s trade policy, knock the administration for poor implementation. Some Democrats like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is running as a Democrat even though he identifies as an independent in the Senate; Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH); and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) use this approach to distinguish themselves from the president while competing for the same policy ground and appeal to voters. Candidates with a more positive view toward free trade criticize both the content of the president’s policies and his implementation of them.

This group includes Democratic candidates such as Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), former representative Beto O’Rourke, and former vice president Joe Biden and Republican Bill Weld, former governor of Massachusetts. Two main criticisms of the president’s policy implementation are emerging from the field. First, candidates are dinging the president for alienating allies instead of building a coalition with them prior to confronting China.

Second, candidates are criticizing Trump for making impulsive trade policy decisions via Twitter. Sanders and others have indicated that imposing tariffs on allies like Canada, the European Union, and Mexico are poor strategic moves. There is also a growing consensus that to hold countries violating trade agreements accountable, the United States will need to build partnerships with its allies rather than lash out at them. When it comes to the substance of President Trump’s trade policy, candidates have largely taken aim at his fondness for tariffs. Candidates that tilt into the pro-trade camp argue tariffs are taxes levied on U.S. consumers and Mayor Pete Buttigieg offered perhaps the most comprehensive take on Trump’s use of tariffs to confront China, arguing that tariffs won’t change China’s behavior given the intertwined nature of their state and economy.

A final trend that is reemerging among Democratic candidates is the call for more robust enforcement mechanisms in trade agreements and stronger rules on labor rights, the environment, and human rights. These policy concerns are not new but are Democratic mainstays and can serve to set candidates across the trade policy spectrum apart from the president, whose policy record is far from pro-union, pro-environment, and pro-human rights.

190626_Reinsch et al_TradePolicyon2020Trail_layout_v3

Read the full report here