WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden has cast himself throughout his political career as a working-class hero, but that narrative will be tested when he’s challenged from both the left and the right on the key economic issue of 2020: trade.
Already, President Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s most formidable primary challenger so far, have indicated they believe Biden is vulnerable to attacks on his trade record, particularly his support for trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.
Both the Trump and Sanders campaigns see attacking Biden’s record on trade as an opportunity to eat away at his front-runner status by appealing to voters wary of globalization, particularly in the deindustrializing Midwest battleground states, which have suffered staggering job losses since NAFTA was enacted.
The United States has lost more than 4.5 million manufacturing jobs since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, and while economists are split on the cause of these losses, revisiting trade deals like NAFTA to bring back manufacturing jobs became a signature issue of both Trump and Sanders' campaigns in 2016.
“Americans are still skeptical of globalization, and the Rust Belt is still suffering from deindustrialization and is still made up of swing states in the presidential election,” said Jeffry Frieden, a Harvard University government professor who has studied the rise of populism in the Midwest. “Given those facts, I think that trade is still likely to be a pivotal issue in the 2020 election, which confronts Democrats with a dilemma.”
Biden is focusing his presidential campaign on the Midwest, in hopes of winning back the states that swung red in 2016. There, he’ll have to find a narrative on trade that doesn’t alienate the progressive wing of his party and explains his past support for NAFTA.
He’s facing a squeeze: On the one side, Sanders can say he voted against the original NAFTA, and has called for a fundamental restructuring of the pact to force companies to stop offshoring jobs and comply with environmental regulations.
Meanwhile, Trump is delighting his base by wielding tariffs at will, most recently promising up to 25% duties on all goods imported from Mexico if that country doesn’t do more to stem the tide of migrants arriving at the U.S. border — a threat that sent the stock market spiraling last week and could cost Americans billions of dollars as businesses pass on their added fees to consumers.
“Trade is still likely to be a pivotal issue in the 2020 election, which confronts Democrats with a dilemma”
Since 2018, Trump has enacted wave after wave of tariffs on commodities, such as steel and aluminum; products, including washing machines and solar panels; and all kinds of goods imported from China.
“Can Biden convince people that the Democrats have an answer that Trump has not provided?” Frieden said. “It’s not impossible, but it will be difficult.”
Biden’s trade plan
Biden’s plan is to attack Trump’s approach to tariffs as ad hoc and reckless, and campaign on the fact that the trade war is hurting American workers, farmers, consumers and manufacturers, according to a campaign spokesman.
Then, Biden will unveil his own trade policy in the coming months — one suited to the progressive politics of the moment.
“During the course of this campaign, Vice President Biden will share his vision for a progressive trade policy in which labor unions and environmental advocates are directly at the table and which would secure the wins that the American people need to compete and lead in the global economy,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates.
Biden’s claim to a progressive trade policy will surely be scoffed at by candidates to his left, given his past support of NAFTA and TPP. When Biden released an education platform recently, Sanders speechwriter David Sirota retorted that the campaign had “decided to brazenly plagiarize” Sanders.
National Sanders campaign co-chair Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) defended his candidate’s lane as pro-labor and said the Vermont Independent’s long record of skepticism of trade deals will give him more long-term credibility on his path to victory through the Midwest.
“Trade agreements need to protect labor and environmental standards and allow for unionization, and these trade deals haven't done that, and it's decimated America's industrial base, it’s decimated much of the working class,” he told VICE News.
Trump isn’t waiting for Biden to win the primary to knock him for supporting bad trade deals. Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said voters would back Trump over Biden because of the latter’s support for NAFTA and TPP.
“We know that Americans are not only feeling the success of the Trump economy but remember how bad things were during the Obama-Biden era. People want progress, not a repeat of past failures,” Perrine said.
“Both Democrats and Republicans are a little all over the map on trade”
Complicating things for everyone, party lines on the issue have become blurred, especially in the Trump era. Trump wants Congress to ratify his rewrite of NAFTA — the USMCA — but that seems unlikely given the dissent in the GOP on his use of tariffs as an instrument of foreign policy.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, called Trump’s latest threat of tariffs on Mexico “a misuse of presidential tariff authority” that could “seriously jeopardize the passage of the USMCA.”
“Both Democrats and Republicans are a little all over the map on trade,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “Democrats don’t know what to make of the president’s moves on trade, because there’s a lot of Democrats who have been calling for the country to get much tougher on China for a long time.”
Free trade skeptics
Several national polls have found a general uptick in support for free trade, but if you drill down into the numbers, you’ll find voters are skeptical that free trade would be good for workers. A national Pew poll in September, for instance, found that although 74% of Americans believe trade is good for the country, only 36% believe it creates jobs and even fewer respondents believe it raises wages.
Surveys of union workers unsurprisingly show dismal support for the trade deals Biden supported. When the AFL-CIO polled its members in 2017, 65% said NAFTA was bad for working people and 72 percent said TPP would have been bad for American workers if it had gone into effect. That leaves questions about not only whether Biden can count on union members’ support in the primary but also whether he could gain back the ground Democrats lost to union households in the 2016 general election.
Nonetheless, a Politico–Morning Consult national tracking poll in May found that upwards of 70% of registered Democratic primary voters said Biden’s support of NAFTA and TPP would make them more likely to support him. The question moving forward is whether sustained attacks from Sanders and Trump will eat into that number — and Biden’s sizeable primary lead.
It’s no surprise both Biden and Sanders are champing at the bit to take on the president. Trump, after all, won the 2016 election on the strength of a combined roughly 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, a margin both Sanders and Biden believe they can narrow.
Polling conducted for the Sanders campaign by Tulchin research found that likely voters in those three states would prefer Sanders over Trump by 8 to 10 percentage points, while Biden also fares well against Trump in early polling. National and regional Midwest polls have shown declining numbers for Trump’s popularity and people’s faith in his ability to handle trade — even as the Republican base continues to back their man.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, said he thinks Trump has done an able job of convincing voters there has been incremental progress, but the real test depends on the situation closer to Election Day: Has the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement been ratified? Has China backed down?
While the latest trade threats caused financial markets to wobble and retaliatory tariffs from China have caused hardships for farmers who export goods to the country, the American economy — for the moment — remains very strong.
“It all depends on what the situation is 18 months from now,” he said. “Donald Trump has turned a lot of Republicans into populists on this issue.”
Sanders will have more backup than just Trump in dinging Biden, too. Fellow presidential candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Tim Ryan have staked out positions to the left of Biden on the issue.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is undecided in the primary but favors progressive trade policies, said no candidate will be able to run from their past record in such a crowded field. But he said a candidate like Biden could believably lay out an alternative vision, even if that means rejecting their own past.
“Not to sound like a hippie, but it should be fair trade, right?” he said.
Most importantly, he said, it is better to fully vet the candidates in the primary before they enter a head-to-head contest against Trump armed with a trade message that will result in Democrats losing his home state, just like last election.
“Donald Trump took every chance he could to take on Hillary about trade,” Barnes said. “I remember talking to people even in the primary: They said that her position on trade was an issue for them — a lot of labor folks. And it was very difficult for them even at that point.”
Cover image: Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Human Rights Campaign Columbus, Ohio Dinner at Ohio State University Saturday, June 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)