Maybe this time around, a Democratic presidential candidate will have the courage to be honest about trade.
Hillary Clinton supported free trade in general and the Trans-Pacific Partnership in particular until she ran for president in 2016, when she made the cold political calculation that continuing to support the TPP would result in a net loss of votes. So, she ran away from it though it were radioactive.
You may remember seeing delegates at the 2016 Democratic Convention holding signs that said “TPP” with a red line through it.
Bernie Sanders kept carping about “job-killing trade agreements” during his 2016 campaign, but never said which trade agreements he was talking about or what jobs they had killed. That didn’t matter to his followers, who thought everything he said was prophetic.
In many parts of the country, particularly Appalachia and the Midwest, it’s a lot easier to go with popular sentiment and blame NAFTA for the decline in manufacturing jobs than it is to explain to voters why that’s not true. A candidate would have to explain that jobs started migrating to Mexico three decades before NAFTA took effect; that U.S. manufacturing jobs peaked at 19.5 million in 1979 and had fallen to 17 million in 1994, when NAFTA took effect; and that they increased in number for the remainder of that decade. That takes time and requires the use of statistics that bore people. Moreover, if someone believes something strongly, he or she will continue to believe it even in the face of proof that it’s wrong.
Anti-trade politicians don’t use statistics, because there aren’t any that bolster their argument. Instead, they use evocative imagery that elicit an emotional reaction – pictures of closed factories with broken windows and weeds climbing the walls, abandoned communities, welfare lines.
Well, things have changed. It used to be that Republicans supported free trade in much larger numbers than Democrats. But as the 2020 election cycle gets under way, polls show that Democratic voters are more open to trade than they used to be.
A Gallup poll conducted in early February found that 74% of Americans saw foreign trade “as an opportunity for growth.” Three years earlier, the same question had gotten a 58% positive response rate.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in July 2018 found that 50% of Americans thought trade “has helped the United States.” That was up from 31% in June 2016.
These polls and others have found that a plurality of Americans think increasing tariffs is bad for the United States, that President Trump’s trade policies in general are bad for the U.S. economy and bad for respondents’ “personal financial situation.”
Nowadays, it’s President Trump and his followers who think the U.S. had gotten the short end of the stick on trade policy. They think the poor little United States has been bullied by the likes of Mexico, Canada, the European Union and China.
Sanders also has the distinction of agreeing with Trump, whom he despises, on trade policy. Trump even said so.
“I like Bernie. He is the one person that, on trade, he sort of would agree (with me) on trade. I am being very tough on trade. He is tough on trade,” Trump said last month.
That’s probably the last thing Sanders wanted to hear.
It will be several months before the 2020 presidential race gets going in earnest. In the meantime, the Peterson Institute for International Economics has published a guide to how each of the announced and expected-to-announce democratic candidates stands on international trade. You can see it here.
Oh, and one other thing: Go UVa!
About the author
John Brinkley was a speechwriter for U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and for Korean Ambasador Han Duk-soo during the Korean government’s quest for ratification of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement
This article originally appeared in Forbes.