Democrats Need To Have A Big Conversation About Trade

There is little doubt that Democrats are in the early stages of what will be a very intense debate about how to best lead the nation after Trump’s disappointing Presidency. As I wrote in a recent NBC News column, one of the most important areas Democrats will have to air out is the best way to re-stitch America back into the global, rules-based order our nation — and our Party — imagined and built after WWII. Given America’s plummeting standing around the world, and the utter contempt Trump has shown for so many nations, allies and institutions of this rules-based system both here and abroad, this will be no easy thing. It may perhaps the toughest challenge our next President, and our emerging leaders of both parties, will face in the coming years.

For Democratic Presidential candidates next year, and perhaps a Democratic Speaker and/or Senate majority leader too, one could imagine that calling for a return to the Paris climate accord or the Iran nuclear deal will be relatively easy matters. But one can also imagine calls for returning America to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or putting NAFTA back together if wrecked by Trump in the days ahead, will be much harder. Democrats are going to have to be very careful here, for a refusal to bolster and support the global trading system that Trump has weakened by the next American President could not just cause irreparable harm to this vital instrument of America’s global power and prosperity, but to the broader rules-based system itself.

For as one sees in both TPP and NAFTA, for example, trade agreements are extensions of the rules-based system, and are as much geopolitics as they are economic arrangements. NAFTA created a global economic and political powerhouse known as North America, and TPP was intended to create a regional counterweight to China’s growing influence and cemented America’s leadership in the Pacific years to come. TPP also contained a comprehensive updating of rules involving the Internet and the cyberspace, something that will remain a major priority for American policy makers for years to come, particularly after the Russian attack on our democracy in 2016. My basic point here is the line between geopolitics, foreign policy and trade policy are far more blurred than bright, and a retreat to a facile protectionism by the next President would not just weaken a global system in need of support it would make America’s return to the global stage far less effective than is in our national interest.

For Democrats there is another reason to tread carefully here — Democratic voters are overwhelmingly supportive of free trade. Consider these three graphs from recent Pew Research polling:

67% of Democrats believe free trade is a good thing. 62% oppose tariffs. 72% say NAFTA is a good thing for the US. These findings suggest that protectionism simply isn’t going to play well in a Democratic Presidential primary next year. The case that globalization was wrecked the American economy will be a particularly tough sell in the early 2020 states of Iowa and New Hampshire, each of which are experiencing some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation and in their history — 2.8% and 2.6% respectively. According to a Pew study done at the height of the Democratic primary in March of 2016, even 55% of Bernie Sanders supporters said that “trade is a good thing,” not all that different from those who supported Hillary Clinton at the time.

There are many explanations for this data I think it has to do with the nature of the Democratic coalition these days. Democrats have large numbers of young people who grew up in a globalized world and have come to expect it; and immigrants or those closely connected to recent immigrant experiences, who often want America to stay connected to the big world out there. The graph below from Pew’s 2017 version of their new report shows the demographic breakdowns of the trade good/bad question — a breakdown that would be familiar to anyone who has studied the recent Brexit vote.

Look, trade is a tough issue. But those Democrats seeking to lead us in the years ahead have to give a great deal of thought about how to approach the trade conversation. Our voters are not with the protectionists, the economy was never as bad as Trump proclaimed, and restoring America’s leadership of — or at least constructive participation in — a global system imagined and built by our party over 70 years ago will be among our most important jobs in the coming years. The answer to Trump isn’t a different version of American retreat; it is a redefining and reassertion of American leadership on the global stage for a new century with new and complex challenges. Democrats have risen to this challenge before, and I am hopeful that we will do so again.

There is an appetite among Dems for US global leadership.

Finally, there is also a cold hard truth here — the global system we built will also continue in some form without us. Europe and Iran appear close to salvaging the Iran Deal, TPP was finalized without the US and without some of our hard negotiated wins. We can both dive into the world and try to lead it, or the nations of the world will end up dictating terms — terms guaranteed to be less favorable — to the US. Retreat is a guarantor of national decline, loss of influence and prosperity. It would be folly to choose that path.