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2020 Democrats hate Trump’s China trade war. Too bad they don’t have any better ideas.

Thursday’s debate showed that candidates are struggling to define a China trade policy to counter Trump’s.

Democratic presidential candidates onstage at the debate on September 12, 2019.
The Democratic debate on September 12, 2019, in Houston, Texas.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The 2020 Democratic candidates all hate President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. They also seem to have no real idea what they would do instead.

At least, they didn’t have any great answers onstage during Thursday’s 2020 debate in Houston. When it came to questions on US-China relations, trade negotiations, and tariffs, candidates were quick to condemn Trump’s strategy. But when it came to delivering their plans on how to handle China, the candidates sounded a bit like, well, Trump.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg both slammed Trump for the fallout from his trade war; Yang noted the suffering of farmers and Buttigieg said Trump’s inability to deal and work with our allies hurt America’s standing.

But Yang also said he wouldn’t remove those tariffs immediately. “We have to let the Chinese know that we recognize that President Trump has pursued an arbitrary and haphazard trade policy that’s had victims on both sides,” Yang said. “So, no to repealing the tariffs immediately, but yes to making sure we come to a deal that addresses the concerns of American companies and American producers.”

Buttigieg, too, said he would include tariffs as “leverage” as part of his strategy, as opposed to Trump’s all-in approach on tariffs.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MI) said she wouldn’t have put the tariffs in place on China (she broadly defended steel tariffs, though not against our allies). But her suggestion was basically, well, to keep talking. “What I think we need to do is to go back to the negotiate table, that’s what I would,” she said.

Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro essentially said the same. “When I become president, I would immediately begin to negotiate with China to ratchet down that trade war. We have leverage there,” he said, without saying how he’d do it or what leverage the US has.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also said the US had to “hold China accountable” for its unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft. Former Vice President Joe Biden, too, said that the US had to set the rules or “we’re going to find ourselves with China setting the rules.”

All of which is exactly what Trump says he’s trying to do. And not doing particularly well, if the jitters over a recession and the frustrations of America’s farmers are any guide.

This slate of Democrats, on the whole, has shown that they’re fairly sympathetic to the protectionist policies this administration has pursued. Klobuchar largely defended steel tariffs on Thursday (albeit not ones applied to our allies), and Warren blasted America’s trade deals for hurting America’s workers, which is a line straight from the current president.

As Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote on Thursday, “basically no one spoke up for free trade as it’s been traditionally pursued by presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.”

Debates are debates, so expecting a multi-pronged plan on US-China trade is unreasonable. But in an area where Democrats could successfully challenge Trump, they’re struggling to say what success with China would look like.