The Democrats have no answer to Trump’s reckless trade war

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Trade has turned out to be one of President Trump’s biggest vulnerabilities as he runs for reelection. He promised to bring millions of manufacturing jobs offshored to China back to the United States, and stop China from cheating in ways that harm American businesses.

It’s not going well. Trump’s main lever has been tariffs on Chinese imports, which have the unfortunate side effect of raising costs on American businesses and consumers. The tariffs have cut into demand for Chinese imports and hurt the Chinese economy. But they’re also hurting the U.S. manufacturing sector, which is now contracting, and depressing business investment. China, meanwhile, hasn’t blinked.

There are better ways to confront China over legitimate trade abuses. Instead of fighting similar trade battles against allies in Europe and elsewhere, as Trump is doing, the United States should team up with them and fight China as a giant bloc of nations with aligned interests. The United States should demand reforms at the World Trade Organization, which is not properly equipped to police China. A trade pact such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled the United States out of, would actually put pressure on China to change. And none of these things requires the United States to punish itself first with tariffs, in order to punish China.

All of the Democrats in the Sept. 12 debate had a chance to offer better ideas on trade. Virtually all of them failed. Sure, they bashed Trump on trade, but they offered no meaningful alternatives. Here’s a sampling:

Elizabeth Warren: “Our trade policy works for giant multinational corporations and not for much of anyone else.” Whoops, she left out the 200 million-plus consumers who get cheaper stuff and the 401(k) holders who own stock in those giant corporations. And her big improvement would be to include union representatives in trade negotiations.

Amy Klobuchar: “We need to go back to the negotiating table—that’s what I would do.” An excellent way of saying nothing at all.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) looks on as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Kamala Harris: “We have to hold China accountable.” But she didn’t say how. She did, however, use trade as her opening to make the cheeky “really small dude” crack about Trump.

Bernie Sanders: “What we have got to do is develop a trade policy that represents workers, represents the famers in the Midwest and elsewhere.” He’ll get back to us when he figures out what that is.

Julian Castro: “We have millions of Uighurs in China that right now are being imprisoned and mistreated.” Millions of Americans are now Googling “Uighurs.”

Joe Biden came close. He closed his remarks on trade by saying, “You need to organize the world to take on China, to stop the corrupt practices that are underway.” He didn’t explain how, but foreign policy is a Biden strength, and one can imagine that if he were president, he’d know whom to ask to develop a coherent China policy.

Trade is normally a sleeper issue in political campaigns. But Trump used free trade as one of his bogeymen for what ails working-class voters in 2016, and it worked. Trade may be even more important in this election, because Trump has imposed trade policies that might lead to success, but seem more likely to backfire and perhaps even cause a recession.

China surely cares who wins the 2020 election. An emboldened Trump in his second term would face fewer constraints and possibly hit China even harder. What a Democratic president would do, we don’t really know. By the time of the next debate, in October, they should tell us.