October 10, 2016 5:18PM

Clinton Breaks Debate Silence on Trade to Call for Steel Protectionism

Until the last few minutes of last night’s debate, Donald Trump had been the only candidate to talk about trade policy during the debates.  At the first presidential debate, Clinton studiously avoided the topic even as Trump used Clinton’s past support for NAFTA and her flip-flop on the TPP to blame her for all the economic troubles he thinks trade has caused. At the vice-presidential debate, neither Mike Pence nor Tim Kaine offered any substantive remarks about trade policy. 

Most of the second presidential debate followed the same pattern.  Trump continued to complain unchallenged that America is losing because of our trade deficit and that Clinton is responsible because of NAFTA and the TPP.

But then in the second to last question of the debate, Trump finally evoked a response from Clinton when he stumbled into some remarks about China and the U.S. steel industry during a longer diatribe about coal and environmental regulations:

We have to bring back our workers. You take a look at what's happening to steel and the cost of steel and China dumping vast amounts steel all over the United States, which essentially is killing our steelworkers and steel companies.

When it was Clinton’s turn to respond, here’s what she had to say:

First of all, China is illegally dumping steel in the United States and Donald Trump is buying it to build his buildings, putting steelworkers and American steel plants out of business. That's something that I fought against as a senator and something I would have a trade prosecutor to make sure we don't get taken advantage of by China on steel or anything else.

You’ll note that Clinton didn’t disagree with Donald Trump’s assessment or criticize his simplistic, zero-sum view of trade.  Instead, she accused Trump of hypocrisy and complicity with the problem and highlighted her own record and promises to protect the steel industry. 

I’ve written before about how Clinton’s own protectionist positions have made it impossible for her to refute Trump’s trade rhetoric.  When confined to specifics, Trump’s trade policy proposals are very similar to what Clinton and other Democrats have been advocating for years.

Just like Trump’s efforts to tie Clinton to NAFTA, Clinton’s remarks about Trump and Chinese steel are likely meant to convince labor unions and Rust Belt voters that she will be a more sincere protectionist than her opponent.

Clinton’s plan to create a special “trade prosecutor” position is a curious proposal she has advocated for a long time.  It was one of her trade policy talking points in 2008 and she’s mentioned it a number of times during this election cycle.  It’s not clear to me what exactly a “trade prosecutor” would do.  Bringing dispute settlement cases against foreign countries at the WTO is already a responsibility of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.  She may want to bring more cases, but she hasn’t said why USTR would not be up to the task.

It’s also confusing that she connects the trade prosecutor proposal to “dumping” which is currently handled through a sophisticated legal process at the Department of Commerce, U.S. International Trade Commission, and federal courts.  Cato scholars have written a lot about the myriad problems with America’s antidumping laws.  To say the least, more antidumping duties are not going to help the U.S. economy.

If you’d like to learn more about the problem of global steel overcapacity and what the best U.S. response would be, I recommend reading this recent Free Trade Bulletin written by my colleague Dan Pearson or watching this Cato Policy Forum from last week.  Spoiler: We don't need more antidumping duties.