It’s not just me. Under Trump, Americans have learned to love the Affordable Care Act (which Trump sought to destroy), have taken the side of “dreamers" (whom Trump holds hostage) and have finally figured out that free trade is a good thing.
The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll finds: “Amid President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they support free trade with foreign countries. ... That represents a new high in the NBC/WSJ survey on this question, and it’s a 7-point increase from the last time it was asked in 2017.” Only 27 percent think free trade is bad.
That should serve as a warning to lawmakers of both parties and Democratic presidential candidates. It’s good policy and good politics to support opening markets for our farmers and businesses and giving our consumers access to the best goods at the lowest prices. In fact, “The percentage of those favoring free trade is up 13 points from 2015 and 7 points from 2017, with Democrats and independents much more supportive than they were four years ago.”
Democratic politicians who say TPP was a bad idea (although it would have put China in a box and greatly improved our negotiating position on items such as intellectual property, not to mention boosting our strategic alliances in the region) sound very 2015. When they reflexively reject NAFTA 2.0 and bad-mouth the original NAFTA with a a vague and unsupported claim that it costs jobs, they sound like Trump. In other words, they sound economically illiterate.
Now, it’s perfectly fine to insist that we give generous support to workers who have been displaced by trade. (Getting them ready for the real threat, automation, would be a good idea.)
We must also aggressively enforce international trade rules that prohibit dumping and phony invocation of national security protections (just as Trump is doing). But the notion that we have more leverage to negotiate environmental protections when we renege on agreements or wage tariff wars is Trump-level dumb.
Now, trade agreements must include certain core labor protections. And we have done so, as the Atlantic has noted:
In response to complaints about the lack of labor rights in NAFTA and other trade agreements, Congress came up in 2007 with the May 10th agreement, a bipartisan compromise aimed at ensuring that trade partners were actually working to improve labor conditions. It required that member countries adopt and enforce the basic labor standards set in the 1988 Declaration of the International Labor Organization. It also made labor disputes subject to the same settlement procedures as commercial trade disputes, meaning that countries that violated labor rules could be subject to sanctions. May 10th required the U.S. to hold countries more accountable for labor standards—Congress did not vote on trade agreements negotiated with Peru, Colombia, and Panama until those countries had changed their labor laws.
There is plenty of room to argue for greater specificity in the agreements and better enforcement mechanisms. But arguing that workers around the globe are better off without such protections is daft. As Vox reported, NAFTA 2.0 “includes several labor rules meant to benefit workers on both sides of the border. For example, Mexico has agreed to pass a law giving workers the right to real union representation, and to adopt other labor laws that meet international standards set forth by the United Nations. American auto companies that assemble their cars in Mexico would also need to use more US-made car parts to avoid tariffs, which would help US factory workers. And about 40 percent of those cars would need to be made by workers earning at least $16 an hour." The problem arises in getting Mexico to enforce these rules.
If Democrats want to sound really smart, they would start saying things like “I’m for TPP and NAFTA 2.0 so that we can sell American goods and services. But we must nail down the worker protections, maybe agree to spot-audits or other mechanisms so that poverty-wage workers aren’t undercutting our own workers. And trade adjustment benefits have to be a whole lot more generous and effective.”
In short, Democrats need to stop pandering on trade and sounding Trumpian. Tout the benefits of free trade, give a few concrete examples as to how to improve worker and environmental protections and bash Trump for not seizing opportunities to put China back on its heels (e.g. enter TPP, which excluded China). Alternatively, they can sound like Trump and inveigh against trade deals based on the irrelevant criteria of trade deficits. They would be in a much better position to skewer Trump on his recession-inducing trade antics if their own position on trade rested on firmer economic ground.