If you watched the first Democratic Presidential candidates debate for a discussion of the candidates’ positions on trade, you are likely to be disappointed. The differences among the Democratic candidates and between them and President Trump will undoubtedly emerge as the campaign proceeds, but the first round of debates shed little light on their positions.
The first night’s debate lacked any questions on trade by the moderators, but a few of the candidates mentioned “China” when asked about the largest geopolitical threat facing the United States. Congressman Tim Ryan (OH) was the most explicit in his remarks singling out China as an economic threat. He and several other candidates talked about manufacturing jobs, but there was little in the way of connecting trade and jobs.
On the second night, moderator Lester Holt of NBC asked a question about trade, but only three candidates had a chance to answer before the debate was halted for a break.
Senator Bennet of Colorado said that China is a big problem, but argued that the best way to deal with China was to unite with our allies. Andrew Yang focused on China’s intellectual property theft, but said that imposing tariffs to address the Chinese behavior is a mistake. Mayor Pete Buttigieg stated that the Chinese government is using technology in the pursuit of authoritarianism. He mentioned as well that the Chinese are trying to dominate certain technologies. That said, he criticized the use of tariffs, which he referred to as a tax, and he said the tariffs have hurt farmers.
Missing from the first two nights were comments by the candidates leading in the polls. At some point in the campaign, perhaps in the next debate, former Vice President Biden and the other candidates will engage in a discussion of the trade policies of the Obama Administration, which proved to be somewhat sensitive for former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton when she was campaigning against candidate Trump. By way of background, in the 2008 Democratic primary campaigns, then-candidate Obama built up a lead with wins in the early primary states. When the campaign moved to the Midwest industrial states, then-candidate Clinton staked out a more hard-line trade policy that contrasted with the more free-trade policies of Sen. Obama. In doing so, she, her approach was also a contrast with President Clinton’s free trade actions, including NAFTA. Ultimately, Mr. Obama moved a little closer to former Sen. Clinton’s positions and went on to win the presidency. Notably, trade was not a particularly contentious issue in the campaign, as former Senator McCain, the Republican nominee was more free trade oriented than Sen. Obama. By the time of the 2016 campaign, however, trade was front and center. The Republican nominee, Mr. Trump, hammered former Secretary Clinton for referring to the Transpacific Partnership Agreement as the “Gold Standard” for trade agreements and being weak on trade generally. While Secretary Clinton tried to back away from that early support for the TPP, it was an issue that Mr. Trump emphasized, particularly in the Midwest industrial states, and proved costly there. If former Vice-President Biden is the Democratic nominee, President Trump will surely be raising the TPP issue as well as the other policies of the Obama Administration. As mentioned, it is likely that the debate over those policies will begin among the Democrats first. It will be a delicate issue as Democrats do not want to be seen as criticizing the Obama Administration, but do not want to give President Trump any openings.
The trade debate is unlikely to be boring–or largely absent, as it was for the first debates.