Democrats in the age of Trump are quick to say they oppose the administration’s international trade policies. Now that it’s time to detail alternatives, challengers are coming up short.
Most of the candidates at last week’s Democratic presidential debate offered their thoughts on trade. Moderators asked how the prospective chief executives would differ from President Donald Trump’s protectionist isolationism.
The Democrats correctly called out Trump’s trade agenda as erratic and haphazard. At least two candidates played the “Iowa” card, invoking the drag Trump has imposed on the farm economy.
However, no candidate said they would repeal Trump’s tariffs on their first day in office. All of them stopped well short of endorsing a bold free trade agenda of their own.
Most candidates borrowed from Trump’s book of anti-China tropes. They insisted, like Trump does, that restrictions are necessary negotiating tools in pursuit of some grand deal. The Democrats say their negotiations would be more fruitful, though they couldn’t explain how.
The debate comes at a time when Trump’s reckless maneuvers have emboldened Americans’ support for free trade. Against the free-trade current, two candidates in particular are boasting their own brands of trade protectionism.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders lambasted not only Trump, but 45 years worth of free trade policies from Republican and Democratic presidents. He is proud of his long-held opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a product of the Clinton era that now is widely supported across American politics.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren would expand the scope of trade negotiations. She suggested she would use restrictions to secure concessions from other countries on labor rights and the environment.
Left-wing trade restrictions may be more predictable and technocratic than Trump’s, but the impacts would be much the same — Americans will pay more for consumer goods, with no assurance our trade partners will play nice.
To be sure, there were a few promising signs at the debate.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris declared she is “not a protectionist Democrat.” Former Vice President Joe Biden aptly noted the United States’ trade deficit with China is not a problem, contrary to Trump’s ramblings. Only one candidate, Julian Castro, said he would immediately begin withdrawing Trump’s tariffs if he’s inaugurated.
The underlying problem left unmentioned is unchecked presidential power.
For many years, Congress had delegated too much of its authority over international trade to the executive branch. Trump has stretched his powers even further, relying on flimsy justifications about national security to unilaterally impose new restrictions on other nations’ goods.
The thing about power is that it’s easier for legislators to give it up than it is to claw it back. It is rare for Congress to stand up against presidential powers, and even rarer for presidents to voluntarily scale back their own latitude.
On a debate stage where most participants are current or former members of Congress, it’s too bad no candidate thought to mention congressional authority in the trade discussion. The first step toward a sensible trade policy is to restore the proper separation of powers.
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