Presidents have the power to set the agenda and drive policy debates, and President Trump has put trade policy front and center. While President Obama moved slowly on trade policy during his first term (he picked up the pace during his second term), and candidate Hillary Clinton called for a “pause” on trade policy during her campaign, Trump has made an activist (and protectionist) trade policy one of his signature issues. Among other things, he has imposed tariffs under a number of trade statutes, accused many other countries of cheating on trade, renegotiated some existing trade agreements, and challenged the functioning of World Trade Organization by blocking the appointment of appeals court judges.
This flurry of trade policy activity has brought a wide-ranging debate over the foundations of trade economics, trade law, and trade politics. Ultimately, this debate might be productive, and it has provided an opportunity to explain these issues to the broader public. In the short-term, however, it has led to a chaotic and economically harmful U.S. approach to trade policy.
With trade policy making headlines, the current group of actual and aspiring Democratic leaders may be forced to make some tough choices on trade. It is not so much whether they are “for it or against it,” but rather, what exactly are they for?
In the short-term, this question is for the House Democrats, who have a great deal of power over Trump’s trade agenda. The administration has negotiated a new NAFTA (called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA), and Congressional ratification will require support from at least some House Democrats. But do they like the agreement Trump negotiated? And do they want to give Trump a political win? So far, many of them seem skeptical about supporting it in its current form.
But the more interesting question is the longer-term trade agenda of the Democratic party. We just hit 2019, but 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are coming forward already, and with trade policy making daily headlines they will almost certainly be offering their views on trade. Senator Elizabeth Warren has already announced that she would form an “exploratory committee,” and has said a few things about trade. Her statements so far have hints of traditional economic nationalism, but leave room for maneuver, and many questions remain. Here are a few questions I would like to see reporters ask her:
- Does she think the tariffs on Chinese imports are working, and would she keep them in place or remove them? What alternative strategies would she consider to address China’s trade practices?
- Would she maintain the steel and aluminum tariffs imposed for what are said to be “national security” purposes?
- Would she support Congressional ratification of the USMCA (subject to certain changes), or would she wait and try to renegotiate NAFTA herself if elected? How exactly would her vision of trade agreements differ from the existing model?
- With which countries, if any, would she negotiate new trade agreements?
- Would she end the Trump administration’s tactic of blocking appointments to the World Trade Organization’s appeals court?
Prior to 2016, it was difficult to imagine so much focus on the details of trade policy. Many politicians were content to proclaim vaguely that they were for “free and fair trade” and leave it at that. But now we have a number of specific actions on the table, and it is worth asking presidential candidates what they think of each one.
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