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Trump’s trade war with China is an attack on Biden

The messy 2020 politics of President Trump’s trade war, explained.

President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports are part of his 2020 presidential campaign strategy.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

In his trade war against China, President Donald Trump’s has another, subtler, politically motivated target: Joe Biden.

Trump has been burrowing in against Biden after the president said last week he would more than double Chinese tariffs, telling crowds foreign leaders want the former vice president to win in 2020 “so they can continue to rip off the United States.”

Biden, like many Democrats, is in a somewhat complicated position. The former president he served under negotiated a free-trade deal that became so unpopular even Hillary Clinton ultimately abandoned it in the 2016 presidential campaign. But he knows unions and lefty populists want Democrats to return to their historic skepticism of free trade. Biden is therefore caught in an awkward position: arguing Trump is focusing on the right problem — China — but “he’s going about it all the wrong way.”

Meanwhile, some of Biden’s biggest competition in the primary, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are every bit as hawkish on China as Trump. So they’ve been left with a tricky bit of triangulation: They agree with cracking down on China, they even agree with some of the president’s more aggressive tactics like tariffs, but they don’t think Trump is executing his plan effectively.

“We do need new trade policies that are fair to the working people of this country, not just to the CEOs, but as usual, I think Trump gets it wrong in terms of implementation,” Sanders said last week.

The whole picture gets even weirder when you remember polling reveals most Democratic voters simultaneously worry about Chinese economic influence while favoring free-trade deals.

Americans might not understand the finer points of trade agreements, but they know whether you’re for them or against them — and Trump has made a big bet that no Democrat can outmaneuver him on foolhardy belligerence toward a foreign adversary.

Trump’s trade war is pretty clearly an attack on Joe Biden specifically

For the particulars of Trump’s escalation with the Chinese, read Vox’s Matt Yglesias:

Last week, Trump raised an existing 10 percent tax on many Chinese imports to 25 percent when talks originally designed to deescalate the earlier round of trade warring collapsed. China responded by raising its own taxes on many American imports. Then Trump started talking about taxing an even wider range of Chinese products.

According to the New York Times, Trump’s aggressive turn toward China, while in keeping with some of his long-held priorities, has a political element. He sees trade as an area where he can rile up his base and position himself as the strong America-first leader, in contrast to the more equivocal Democrats.

From the Times:

Several of Mr. Trump’s current and former aides — including Mr. Bannon and Peter Navarro, his trade adviser — have long argued that being tough with China and never accepting a deal is the right course. They were countered by more mainstream figures like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, who warned Mr. Trump that a prolonged trade war would buffet both the economy and financial markets.

In recent weeks, however, Mr. Trump’s campaign advisers have also started to echo the no-compromise approach, according to a former official. That, combined with Mr. Biden’s potential political weakness on China, has shifted Mr. Trump’s thinking away from those who urged a deal.

Now, it’s important to separate the politics from the policy. Trump sees Biden as vulnerable on trade because Biden has generally been a free-trade supporter, including in his backing of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership. TPP took a lot of heat from labor unions and trade protectionists in the Democratic and Republican parties, but it was designed in part to curb Chinese influence by uniting the rest of the Asian world in a deal with the US. That never happened, opening up a lane for the Chinese.

This is already more granular detail than most voters care about when it comes to trade. Trump sees this as a chance to present himself as tough in contrast to Biden, his most likely 2020 opponent for the time being.

Here is how Biden responded to Trump’s tariff hike:

“The only people who are paying a price are farmers and working people,” Biden said. He’s right, of course: Trump is wrong when he says China pays the cost of tariffs, it is very much Americans who bear that load.

But you can see Biden struggle to strike the balance between criticizing Trump while taking China seriously. He wants the rest of the world alongside us, in one of the common liberal critiques of Trump: By taking the protectionist route, he is isolating the US from the rest of the world. Biden then nods to labor and admits Chinese intellectual property theft is a real problem. You’d be forgiven for not getting a clear picture of where Biden would differ from Trump in this answer.

How the left is responding to Trump’s trade war

Another remark Biden made recently — “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man” — was quickly picked up by Trump and some of Biden’s more left-wing competitors in the Democratic primary.

But Sanders and Warren and others haven’t necessarily had a much easier time responding to Trump, as the Washington Times chronicled this week. Here is Warren over the span of a week:

A week ago, Ms. Warren said she supported Mr. Trump’s aggressive negotiations with China.

“What I’d like to see us do is rethink all of our trade policy,” the Massachusetts Democrat said on CNN. “I have to say, when President Trump says he’s putting tariffs on the table, I think tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy overall.”

But she quickly found fault when Mr. Trump followed through Friday.

“I don’t believe in tariff negotiation by tweet,” Ms. Warren said. “Our best way to fight back is with strength and with a coherent plan, not with chaos.”

Here is Sanders, who similarly supports tariffs generally and opposes Trump’s tariffs specifically:

Last year, Mr. Sanders said he “strongly supports” slapping tariffs on countries such as China.

He told “PBS NewsHour” last week that he still wants to protect U.S. workers but “not the way Trump is dealing with it.”

“I think we do need new trade policies that are fair to the working people of this country not just to the CEOs, but as usual, I think Trump gets it wrong in terms of implementation,” he said.

So the left agrees with Trump that China is a problem — even on some of the particulars, like currency manipulation — but they don’t like the way he’s gone about trying to fix it.

They can and will make the case that Trump’s actions have not lived up to his rhetoric, the same theme they’ll hit regarding the GOP tax bill or health care. But it leads to a muddier political debate. Democrats want to hold themselves up as a sharp contrast to Trump, whom many Democratic voters regard as an existential threat to the country, but on this particular issue, progressives can sometimes sound a lot like the president.

Democrats are sorting through some very weird trade politics

Two charts from the Pew Research Center explain the Democratic conundrum. On the one hand, worries about China’s economic strength are on the rise:

Pew Research Center

But on the other hand, Democratic voters are actually more supportive of free trade deals than they have been in a long time.

Pew Research Center

That dissonance shows itself in the confused response of Democratic presidential candidates to Trump’s tariffs. They are more than happy to join him in bashing China, a proud campaign season tradition, but they still have to find an opportunity to contrast with the president too. Certain segments of the party are skeptical of free-trade deals — hello to the labor unions — but the broader electorate is actually much more favorable.

Still, in 2020, the left sees a very real opportunity to seize control of the trade agenda. The Democratic Party faces a fork in the road in the upcoming presidential campaign, on an issue where Trump has scrambled the old alliances.

“I think we’re at a tipping point,” Thea Lee, who leads the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told Vox earlier this year. “You could see Democrats retreat to their comfort blanket. My hope is we can convince people that’s not an option. We’re not going to go back to the status quo ante. What we need to do is have a forward-looking vision.”

They will seek to build off Trump’s abrupt shift of the Overton window, with more protectionist policies seeming much closer to the mainstream than they had across 20 years of neoliberal consensus under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, while also making the case that the president hasn’t fulfilled his promises. These recent stumbles on the Chinese tariffs suggest that won’t always be an easy line for progressives to walk.

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