Why Trump Is Losing the Trade Debate

Why Trump Is Losing the Trade Debate
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To the extent Donald Trump has a plausible strategy to win the White House, it involves using a pugnacious economic populism to maximize the white working-class vote, appeal to disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters and paint the Rust Belt red. His favored tactical weapon is the contrast of his vociferous rejection of the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to Hillary Clinton’s newfound and softer-spoken opposition.

But so far, the weapon is a dud. An Economist/YouGov poll last week found that 61 percent are “uneasy” about Trump’s “ability to deal wisely with international trade,” with only 29 percent proclaiming themselves “confident.” The poll was conducted a few days after Trump delivered one of his most substantive policy speeches, in which he laid out his trade principles and accused Clinton of secretly planning to ratify TPP and “betray” American workers.

Do those numbers mean that it’s bad politics to oppose the TPP? Probably not.  An ABC/Washington Post poll from May found 56 percent of registered voters said “trade with other countries does more to take away U.S. jobs” than create them. In a March Bloomberg poll, 65 percent said “U.S. trade policy should have more restrictions on imported foreign goods to protect American jobs,” and a plurality believed NAFTA “has been bad for the U.S. economy.” Perhaps the biggest proof of where the Rust Belt stands on trade is the Ohio Senate race, where the Democratic and Republican candidate are trading fire over who is the bigger opponent of TPP.

So why is Trump missing the plate with his strongest pitch?

While skepticism of past and future trade agreements cuts across party lines, stitching together a broad and politically potent left-right coalition remains tricky business for the most artful of politicians. And Trump is far from that.

His best bet for transcending the ideological spectrum is to make the race about himself, assuring that he alone has the negotiating skills to forge “great deals” unlike the “all talk, no action” politicians.

But making the race about yourself doesn’t work if people don’t like or respect you, and the Clinton campaign has done a far better job than Trump’s Republican primary opponents in sowing the seeds of disgust. Ads bludgeoning Trump’s business ethics and acumen have been circulating for weeks, spreading Trump’s 2006 comments that seemingly rooted for a real estate crash (“I sort of hope that happens, because then people like me would go in and buy”), mocking the fraudulent nature of Trump University and reminding people of his Atlantic City casino bankruptcies. If Trump is perceived as more scam artist than business savant, of course people would lack confidence in his ability to negotiate intricate international trade agreements.

The chronically ham-fisted Trump also lacks the rhetorical finesse to bring the Bernie Sanders left into the Republican fold. Instead of finding points of common ground, he offers an underlying critique of the American economy that fundamentally clashes with Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism. While the left views TPP as a symbol of how the rules are rigged for corporations, Trump argues that we’re too rough on corporations, arguing last month, “We tax and regulate and restrict our companies to death and then we allow foreign countries that cheat to export their goods to us tax-free. How stupid is this?” On his website he pledges to “[s]trengthen our negotiating position” with other countries “by lowering our corporate tax rate”: the exact opposite direction from where Sanders voters want to go.

Then there’s the matter of Trump’s political credibility. He’s has taken so many different positions over the years and during the campaign -- sometimes within a single speech -- that voters may not have any faith that Trump means what he says, despite all the bravado.

A highly relevant example: Trump once wrote an article for his Trump University blog titled “Outsourcing Creates Jobs in the Long Run,” in which he defends the practice of terminating positions in America to take advantage of cheap overseas labor: “Because work is often outsourced to other countries, it means Americans lose jobs. … Losing jobs is never a good thing, but we have to look at the bigger picture. … [O]utsourcing [has] helped companies be more competitive and more productive. That means they make more money, which means they funnel more into the economy, thereby creating more jobs.”

You could argue that he was merely taking the long view. But even if he did then, that is not the view he takes today when he claims that, as president, he “won’t allow” individual American companies to move jobs overseas, a pledge of direct government intervention into the marketplace that even Bernie Sanders hasn’t made.  

Which view represents the real Trump? Perhaps the answer lies on his balance sheet, and the profits he has reaped from all the Trump-branded merchandise manufactured overseas.

All of the above speaks to Trump’s flaws as a messenger. But there may also be a problem with the message. Not with the basic opposition to TPP, but with Trump’s glib attitude toward starting a “trade war” with China by levying huge, punitive tariffs. “We’re losing $500 billion to China. Who the hell cares about a trade war?” Trump said during a May rally. In fact, a lot of people far less flush than Trump would care a lot of if there were a sudden price spike in everyday goods.

Clinton has sought to favorably contrast Trump’s crude prescription with her natural inclination towards nuanced policy proposals. In a June speech she said: “Donald doesn’t see the complexity. He wants to start a trade war with China. And I understand a lot of Americans have concerns about our trade agreements – I do too. But a trade war is something very different. … It’s not hard to see how a Trump presidency could lead to a global economic crisis.”

Such carefully calibrated rhetoric is not without risk for Clinton; trying to simultaneously oppose TPP and pillory protectionism could be seen by skeptical Sanders voters as trying to have it both ways. In turn, Clinton’s numbers on trade in the YouGov poll are tepid, with 40 percent expressing confidence in her and 47 percent harboring uneasiness. But tepid beats terrible.

Bill Scher is a senior writer at Campaign for America's Future, executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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