Joe Biden Risks Losing Freer Traders … and Giving Trump an Opening

If the election were to be held today, Joe Biden would almost certainly defeat Donald Trump. However, the election is still four months away, and Biden has made a serious mistake by moving in a protectionist direction. Hillary Clinton made the same mistake in 2016 – and we saw how that went. Unfortunately, too few people remember it correctly. Donald Trump didn’t “win” the argument on trade against Clinton; Clinton surrendered without firing a rhetorical shot. Joe Biden should not make the same mistake.

Republicans had been the party more aligned with the cause of freer trade for decades … until Barack Obama came on board in his second term. Hesto presto, freer trade became “Obamatrade” for a slew of “conservative” Republicans, opening the door for Trump.

Meanwhile, Clinton was so concerned about consolidating the American left that she walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and from the North American Free Trade Agreement. So when Trump spewed his nonsensical protectionism, Clinton did not challenge him. Supporters of freer trade needed to find other reasons to vote for Clinton (as I eventually did) or support someone else. More than enough of them kept Clinton out of the White House by choosing the latter.

To be fair to Biden, his trade policy (announced Thursday) does take aim at Trump for his “go-it-alone trade war.” He also pledges to “work with our closest allies, mobilizing more than half the world’s economy to better deliver for our workers” instead of “picking fights with our allies and undermining respect for America,” as Trump has most certainly done.

However, as Scott Lincicome notes, other parts of Biden’s trade policy give serious hints of going in the wrong direction. While much of Biden’s rhetoric focuses on the Chinese Communist Party (for very good reason), he repeatedly broadens the potential retaliations to “any other country” or to “other trade abusers” – which for Democrats have too often meant American allies simply bringing competitive goods to market.

The lack of any mention of the TPP (or even extending Trade Promotion Authority beyond next year) is also troubling. Biden clearly sees that he needs to balance the benefits of international trade with the dangers from the increasingly dangerous Chinese Communist Party. However, the TPP was specifically designed for just such a balance – as he himself would know, being Vice President when the agreement was made in 2015.

Biden can still defend TPP as the best way to protect the economies of the democratic world against the Chinese Communist Party via freer trade among democratic allies and greater economic prosperity. He can remind voters who they have been damaged by Trump’s trade wars …

… or he risks history repeating itself.

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