The nearly two dozen Democratic candidates running for president overwhelmingly agree that Donald Trump’s trade policies have failed.

They’re just not ready to say what they’d do about it.

Of the 14 contenders who attended the California Democratic Party convention this weekend, only one, Senator Kamala Harris, addressed the issue. She condemned Trump’s recent threat to impose tariffs on Mexican goods but didn’t offer any policy prescriptions of her own.

Senator Kamala Harris,
Senator Kamala Harris,

This relative silence leaves two constituencies crucial to winning back the White House—union members and rural voters—open to being wooed by Trump’s get-tough approach, much as they were when he faced Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Trade policy by tweet does not work,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said last month in Newton, Iowa. “The kind of chaos and tit-for-tat that Donald Trump is engaged in is imposing an enormous cost on farmers right here in Iowa and people all across this country. This makes no sense.”

The escalating dispute between the U.S. and China, as well as Trump’s willingness to go after Mexico, the U.S.’s second-biggest trading partner, have made trade a hot topic. Yet most Democratic contenders, including Warren, are avoiding substantive policy proposals.

That’s because an embrace of tariffs and other barriers could alienate rural voters in areas that are heavily dependent on agricultural exports. But favoring more open trade could make it hard to recapture blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt who have turned away in recent years, blaming the Democrats’ support of globalization for the collapse of U.S. manufacturing.

Divisive Issue

“Trade is divisive and hence there might be an incentive to say, ‘Hey, let’s kick that down the road a little bit and let’s get a few things out that may be popular across the board,’” said Andy Green, managing director of economic policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Green said the candidates are prioritizing policy proposals on issues where there is more agreement within the party like health care, housing and climate change. But he said progressives are also going through an “intellectual transition” on trade, as they grapple with the downward pressure on wages that some say is partly a legacy of the laissez-faire agenda of the Democratic administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Bernie Sanders has staked out the clearest position on trade so far. Like Trump, the Vermont senator has harnessed a wave of discontent about job losses by linking them to free-trade pacts. Now Sanders is working to highlight key differences with the president, including calling on Trump to scrap a new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, which he says does not do enough to protect U.S. workers.

In late April, Sanders outlined a trade platform that called on Trump and all the Democratic presidential contenders to pledge to renegotiate trade deals to preventoutsourcing of U.S. jobs. He also called on them to back labeling China acurrency manipulator, an action the Trump administration has refused to take.

Sanders also pushed for an executive order barring federal contracts to companies that outsource jobs, a promise not to appoint trade representatives from Wall Street and a repeal of the 2017 GOP tax cuts that he says reward companies for moving factories to other countries.

“We need a president who will actually fight for American workers, keep their promises, and stand up to the giant corporations who close down plants to send jobs overseas,” Sanders said in a statement in April.

Trade Advocates

The issue is particularly difficult for Democrats because of the evolution in the party over the past few decades — from staunch opponents of free trade to the architects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Hillary Clinton’s flip-flop on the TPP, which she advocated as secretary of state and then ultimately came out against during the 2016 primary after pressure from Sanders, illustrates the fault lines Democrats must navigate in the 2020 primary contest.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner, will likely have to defend his record, which includes his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993 and the TPP. Sanders opposed both agreements.

On Monday, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates assailed Trump’s trade policies but offered few specifics. The candidate, he said, would roll out his “vision for a progressive trade policy” over “the course of this campaign.”

Democratic strategists say Trump’s handling of the trade issue has given candidates an opportunity to focus the conversation more on his policies than on the possible alternatives.


“His impulsive, go-it-alone approach to the issue has left them with an easily accessible and open door to push on,” said Ned Price, the director of policy and communications at National Security Action and a former national security spokesman in the Obama administration. “He has taken a complex issue and, in a sense, turned himself into the target — and a big one at that.”

A poll published last week by the Monmouth University Polling Institute found that 62% of Americans expect U.S. consumers to bear most of the cost of the latest round of tariffs on Chinese goods. In addition, 47% of respondents think that Trump’s tariffs will hurt the U.S. economy. Only 25% said they would help.

Therefore, without policy prescriptions of their own, the candidates have mostly stuck to the playbook of blaming Trump.

“We need a president of the United States that’s going to stand up for American farmers, that’s going to stand up for American consumers and going to join with our allies to make sure that we have just and fair trade that works for everyone,” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said in Chariton, Iowa, last month.

But rural voters warned they are growing weary of the Democrats’ lack of specifics.

‘Eating Us Alive’

“I don’t know what the Democrats are thinking, but the farmers, the costs are eating us alive,” said Jeff Olson, a farmer in Winfield, Iowa, who said he’s barely breaking even. Olson, a former Republican who didn’t support Trump in 2016, said he won’t vote for Trump in 2020, but he is looking for more clarity from the Democrats.

Pam Johnson, a soybean farmer from outside Charles City, Iowa, said she, too, is eagerly awaiting the Democrats’ trade policy.

“It’s so important to us when 95 percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States that we get back into the game,” she said. “I’m not saying that we should not hold China accountable, but there are different ways to do that.”

Still, even as they attack the president, many of the candidates are also doing a delicate dance around the fact that they agree with Trump that China isn’t playing by the rules.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he would remove the current tariffs on China, if elected, but didn’t rule out making them part of a strategy in the future.

China Threat

“If we really want to be serious about competing with China, we’ve got to invest in American domestic competitiveness,” he said at an event hosted by the Washington Post last month. “We’ve got to figure out how we can have a more orderly disentanglement of things like 5G technology where they’re establishing technological superiority. And we have to build a global framework where we’re competing with China on our terms instead of theirs.”

Warren also signaled she would consider tariffs, but she emphasized they would need to be part of a coherent strategy that includes working with American allies, a rebuke of Trump’s go-it-alone approach.

“We should have all of our allies working together to push back jointly against China’s unfair trade policies, but that starts by building an alliance, not by tweeting in the atmosphere,” she said last month during a three-day swing through Iowa.