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Democratic Voters Like Free Trade, Why Don't Candidates?

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By Monday, 16 September 2019 05:22 PM Current | Bio | Archive

George Stephanopoulos handed the Democratic presidential candidates an opportunity, yet not one of them took it.

While moderating their debate at Texas Southern University on Thursday, he highlighted an important initiative from President Donald Trump that is unpopular with the public at large and with Democratic voters. One might think that the Democrats would be fighting over who hated Trump’s policy most. But none came out in straightforward opposition to it.

The issue is free trade. In June, an AP-NORC poll found that Americans, by a nearly two-to-one margin, thought Trump’s tariffs on China hurt rather than helped the country. Gallup finds that a record-high 74% of Americans consider trade more an opportunity than a threat to the country.

Democrats are more positive about trade than Republicans or independents.

That’s not just a partisan reaction to Trump: Democrats became more optimistic about trade throughout Barack Obama’s presidency. It probably has something to do with the influx of college-educated voters to the Democratic Party, another trend that began before Trump but has become more pronounced during his administration.

The Democrats in Texas didn’t sound like they realized they were in a pro-trade party. Stephanopoulos asked whether Trump’s tariffs on imports from China should be ended, and none took the bait.

Eight of them denounced Trump, to be sure. Julian Castro said his policies were "erratic."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that they weren’t "focused." Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said Trump had left us "isolated."

South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg complained that Trump didn’t have a "Strategy."

But they didn’t say they would get rid of the tariffs.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., didn’t join the others in denouncing Trump.

She said that existing trade deals should be renegotiated to better serve U.S. workers and that other countries would comply with demands that they change their policies or lose access to American markets. This was an answer not far off from the president’s views.

Longshot Beto O’Rourke has come out for ending the tariffs, although he did not talk about it at the Texas debate.

On other issues, the Democratic candidates have been willing to present stark contrasts with the administration, even at some political risk. At the debate, O’Rourke said he believed the government should confiscate Americans’ AR-15 rifles. Senator Bernie Sanders and Warren defended abolishing private health insurance.

Why aren’t the Democrats standing with their voters, and the public, against Trump on trade? Washington Post columnist Dan Drezner called it "the biggest puzzle of the 2020 Democratic primary to date."

The answer probably lies in a mix of ideology, interest groups and inertia.

A number of the candidates are genuine, committed protectionists. Sanders has been against trade deals for longer than most Americans have been alive. Warren’s conviction that trade needs to be heavily regulated fits easily into her worldview. She started her answer by saying that “giant corporations” had set trade policy to help themselves get rich at everyone else’s expense.

It seems to many Democrats that the Warren-Sanders wing is on the rise. Free trade may be suffering from its association with the party’s more moderate past. Unions and environmental groups remain major players in the Democratic Party, too, and they have long been skeptical of trade agreements. Democratic candidates want to court them.

They may also believe that being too enthusiastic about trade would make it impossible for them to court an important subset of voters: Midwestern whites without college degrees who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but voted for Trump in 2016.

That political judgment may not be right. Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — all free-trading Republicans in the Senate from the Midwest – got a higher percentage of the vote in their states than Trump did.

But the impression that protectionism is key to winning those states has nonetheless set in.

Finally there’s habit. In the years before 2016, Republicans were slow to adjust to becoming the party favored by working-class white voters. Democratic politicians may have an outdated picture of their voting coalition, too.

Whatever the Democrats’ reasons, they have put themselves in an odd place. An administration they loathe has embarked on a policy that inflicts at least short-term damage on the economy. The policy isn’t popular, and is especially unpopular among their supporters. Usually a party in this position would be campaigning against the policy. But not today’s Democratic Party, not this year.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

© Copyright 2018 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved.


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Monday, 16 September 2019 05:22 PM
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