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Washington Monthly | Warren vs Booker on China and Trade Policy

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During Thursday night’s debate, George Stephanopoulos raised the question of what the candidates would do on trade policy, specifically with China. Initially, several of them wanted to focus on explaining how Donald Trump’s erratic approach was hurting Americans—which is an important point to make. But the context is important to keep in mind. Carrie Dann made the point on Twitter.

While it’s true that the president’s incompetence on this issue is probably driving up support for free trade, even before he entered his trade war with China, Pew Research found that two-thirds of Democrats say that free trade agreements have been good for the U.S. As I noted previously, that probably has something to do with the fact that, for many Americans, the side of the equation that has to do with exporting what we make and grow in this country is at least as important, if not more so, than cheaper goods made abroad. That’s not just about farmers, as Ron Brownstein pointed out.

Brookings found that fully 86 percent of U.S. exports now originate from urban areas. Moreover, exports drove more than one-quarter of all metro area economic growth from 2009-2014.

Metro areas, which are highly Democratic, are also economically dependent on exporting their products and services abroad.

When trade policy is discussed, however, the emphasis is often placed on the jobs that have been lost to trade, rather than those that are dependent it. For example, Thursday night Elizabeth Warren said this.

So our trade policy in America has been broken for decades, and it has been broken because it works for giant multinational corporations and not for much of anyone else. These are giant corporations that, shoot, if they can save a nickel by moving a job to a foreign country, they’ll do it in a heartbeat.

Warren isn’t wrong about that, but it’s only half of the picture. When it comes to how to fix what is broken in our trade policy, she answered a question about what kind of leverage the U.S. has in trade negotiations—specifically with China.

And you asked the question about leverage. If I can just respond to that one, the leverage, are you kidding? Everybody wants access to the American market. That means that we have the capacity to say right here in America, you want to come sell goods to American consumers? Then you got to raise your standards. You’ve got to raise your labor standards. You’ve got to raise your environmental standards so our companies can compete on a level playing field.

Warren is once again focused on the import side of trade. As I have written previously, “Negotiating trade agreements is complex, requiring a balancing act that meets the needs of workers affected by imports, while not damaging the workers whose jobs and wages depend on exports.”

But to be honest, in discussing leverage, Warren is making the same mistake Trump does on trade by assuming that the United States is able to dictate terms that meet our interests. China has demonstrated that they are willing to wait things out and play a long game on trade with the U.S. The countries that were involved in the original TPP agreement moved on without the United States when Trump pulled us out of that deal. Japan went on to sign a significant trade agreement with the European Union based primarily on the provisions negotiated in TPP.

It was Joe Biden who pointed out why the days are over when the U.S. could go it alone on trade by saying that “We make up 25 percent of the world economy. We need another 25 percent to join us.” But it was Cory Booker who brought it home (emphasis mine).

There’s one point we’re really missing on the stage right now, which is the fact that Donald Trump’s America first policy is actually an America isolated, an America alone policy.

From trade to battling China to the global crisis of climate change, the challenges in the Middle East, he is pulling us away from our allies, out of the Iran deal, out of the Paris climate accords…

We cannot go up against China alone…We are the strongest nation on the planet Earth, and our strength is multiplied and magnified when we stand with our allies in common cause and common purpose. That’s how we beat China. That’s how we beat climate change on the planet Earth, and that’s how American values are the ones that lead on issues of trade and workers’ rights.

To be clear, China knows that they can’t go it alone either. That is why the country is busy working all over Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to develop trade partnerships. It is more obvious than ever before that Biden was right when he said that “we’re either going to make policy or China’s going to make the rules of the road.”

The United States needs a president who understands that and is prepared to work in partnership with other countries to find those areas of “common cause and common purpose.” As Booker noted, that isn’t just important when it comes to trade policy, it is even more critical on issues like climate change.

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