In the presidential debates and on the campaign trail, U.S. trade policy has taken a beating. Trump would slap a 45% tax on all imports from China. Sanders claims that trade agreements have been “a disaster for the American worker.” Cruz perpetuates the myth that Congress has ceded its authority on trade to President Obama. And Clinton would oppose a trade agreement she helped craft.
Somewhere along the line, bashing trade surpassed kissing babies as the gesture of choice among Oval Office seekers. With scorn coming from Democratic and Republican candidates alike, it is tempting to conclude that prospects for trade liberalization anytime soon look awfully bleak. But are they really?
Trade is in the cross-hairs in 2016 because—unlike any election in 24 years—a major trade agreement (indeed, the largest preferential trade agreement in U.S. history) is being debated and possibly considered for ratification by the U.S. Congress. Accordingly, business, labor and other interest groups have pricked up their ears to listen to what the candidates are saying about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And the candidates have obliged by tailoring their messages accordingly. Unfortunately, the American public is treated mostly to half-truths and fallacies by today’s presidential aspirants. When Al Gore and Ross Perot debated the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992, at least their opinions were derived from the same set of facts.
Following the NAFTA vote, the bipartisan consensus for trade liberalization that had prevailed since World War II broke apart and trade policy began to take on greater significance as a rhetorical device in election campaigns. Though there were legitimate questions to ask and answer about the significance of the trade deficit, the causes of manufacturing job losses, and who was benefiting and suffering from lower tariffs, the candidates turned scapegoating into an art form, blaming Japan, then Mexico, then China for domestic woes real and imagined, while working to shield their own shortcomings from proper scrutiny.
Though President Obama and Mitt Romney repeatedly exchanged barbs about who was more “culpable” for “shipping U.S. jobs overseas” throughout the 2012 general election campaign—with neither ever attempting to explain that businesses consider a host of economic, legal and political criteria when deciding where to invest; or that companies that outsource value-added operations also tend to invest in complementary domestic value-added operations; or that 6 million Americans are employed by U.S. affiliates of foreign-headquartered companies (so-called “insourcing” operations)—trade policy tends to be prone to the most demagogic rants during primary election season. That has much to do with the fact that the primaries tend to attract voters from the extremities of both major parties, where trade and globalization are viewed with the greatest skepticism and disdain.
Democrats on the left are driven by anti-business, anti-capitalist, pro-union impulses, and are wooed by candidates who fuel the fallacies that trade agreements only benefit multinational corporations and society’s wealthiest cohorts. In reality, trade barriers hurt small businesses more than large ones and lower-income families more than higher-income ones. These candidates don’t mention that U.S. import duties are highest on apparel, footwear, foodstuffs, home furnishings and building materials, or that their opposition to trade liberalization amounts to support for high taxes on clothing, food and shelter. Of course lower-income families devote larger portions of their budgets to these basic necessities, putting import restrictions on par with Powerball as one of America’s most regressive taxes.
In 2008, Senators Obama, Clinton and Edwards tripped over one other to be cast as the trade-rules enforcer and playing-field leveler, each pledging to force U.S. trade partners back to the negotiating table to revise NAFTA and the various World Trade Organization agreements so that the rules would be “more fair” to American workers. However, within days of taking the oath of office, President Obama phoned Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon to let them know that his words were merely campaign rhetoric. Concurrently, a few blocks away and shortly after being confirmed as President Obama’s Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton trumpeted the U.S. “pivot to Asia,” featuring the Trans-Pacific Partnership as its economic centerpiece. So, as Barack Obama transitioned from candidate to nominee to president, and Hillary Clinton transitioned from candidate to Secretary of State, their public positions on trade similarly evolved. Eight years later, in the midst of a challenge from another upstart to her left, Clinton has been forced to disavow the TPP—for the time being.
Republicans on the right possess a nationalist, protectionist, xenophobic tendency that warms to Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Though it goes without saying that Trump is unabashed and boorish in his appeal to these baser elements in the party, he is not the first Republican to tap these sentiments. Previous primary candidates Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa Caucus in 2012, and Pat Buchanan, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, both portrayed global economics as a zero-sum game with Team USA losing ground to Team Mexico and Team China. The myth of U.S. manufacturing decline—the mistaken portrayal of declining demand for manufacturing labor as a sign of U.S. manufacturing weakness—long has nourished this nationalistic, “Us versus Them” narrative.
Despite all of this, it is difficult to imagine the president of the United States eschewing a pro-trade agenda, even in a Trump or Sanders administration. (Of course, trade policy would be the least of our worries if either were to become president.) If it’s not already in their DNAs, presidents quickly tend to embrace global perspectives and see trade policy through the prism of foreign policy, which is one of the few areas of governance where the executive branch has more constitutional authority than the legislature. Fortunately, the Congress has authority over the nuts and bolts of trade policy, which precludes a president from unilaterally raising tariffs or suspending or amending the terms of trade agreements.
Hating on trade has become a primary election pastime, but trade issues tend to be of marginal concern to voters in the general election. So, for all the squeamishness and handwringing over what the polls and early primary results mean for the direction of U.S. trade policy and, by extension, the future of U.S. global economic leadership, history suggests that cooler heads will prevail and keep the ship on a proper tack. If that fails, the U.S. Constitution will limit the scope for damage.