NEW YORK | His trade war already raging worldwide, President Donald Trump on Friday brandished his aggressive approach as a political weapon at home, too, casting himself as a fighter for American workers and scorning his chief Democratic rivals as weak.
Trump’s actions have already caused economic harm to some of the regions that backed him in 2016. Yet the Republican president is showing little regard for the political risks — or his party’s traditional embrace of free trade — as he stakes out his position on an issue that could define the 2020 presidential contest as much as any other.
Trump slapped at former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential contender, in a social media post while defending his latest levying of higher tariffs on Chinese goods, which had taken effect at midnight.
Hours later, U.S. and Chinese negotiators broke off talks they were holding under the increasing pressure of the new tariffs, mostly ultimately paid by U.S. consumers and companies, on $200 billion in Chinese goods and Beijing’s promise to retaliate.
The administration already had applied billions of dollars in trade taxes to goods from China, the world’s second largest economy. And the administration has also imposed steel tariffs against allies including Canada, Mexico and the European Union and threatened additional tariffs.
“This is not the Obama Administration, or the Administration of Sleepy Joe, who let China get away with ‘murder!'” Trump tweeted, using his dismissive nickname for Biden.
A spokesman for Biden, who is in the midst of his inaugural nationwide tour as a formal 2020 presidential candidate, condemned Trump’s approach.
“We’re not going to get a good deal with China if we let Trump keep negotiating by impulse, tweet, and campaign rally one-liner,” said the spokesman, Andrew Bates.
Trump’s continued embrace of protectionist trade policies could energize his supporters from both parties across the Midwest, where many blame trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, for the decline of America’s manufacturing sector. At the same time, And Trump’s prominent poking will almost certainly exacerbate divisions among Democrats, who are in the early days of their own intra-party fight to pick someone to take him on next year.
In an interview, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Democratic weakness on trade was part of the reason Trump won in 2016 — because his Democratic opponent wasn’t strong enough in condemning deals perceived by some as helping other countries more than the U.S. He warned Democrats not to make the same mistake again.
“If they cede that territory, they are doing so at their own peril,” Trumka said. “They need to talk more effectively about trade and convince people that they’re going to stand up for workers, that we’re not going to continue down the road we’ve been on.”
Biden could be particularly vulnerable.
The former senator, known for his working-class roots, is the only 2020 Democratic candidate who voted to support NAFTA. And he supported the trade deal authored by the Obama administration known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump ultimately killed once he took office. Still, in the Senate, Biden voted against a number of trade deals, including those with Singapore, Chile and Oman.
Privately, Biden’s leading Democratic rivals suggest that any advantages he may have in the Midwest will ultimately fade because of his record on trade. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, among other high-profile 2020 Democrats, aggressively opposed the trade deals and expects to ratchet up his contrast with Biden in upcoming debates.
Republicans are doing their part already.
Not long after Trump’s tweet, the Republican National Committee issued a statement highlighting Biden’s “dovish” approach on China both as a presidential candidate and as Barack Obama’s vice president. Biden faced intense criticism from both parties last week after downplaying the threat from China during a campaign stop in Iowa.
While conventional wisdom suggests Trump’s populist approach may resonate with voters in both parties, AP Vote Cast, a survey of the 2018 national electorate, showed that 81 percent of the people who voted for Democrats last year thought Trump’s trade policies would hurt the national economy. Overall, 53% of 2018 voters opposed Trump on trade.
A team of economists from the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University and Yale University in March found that the trade war was an overall burden on the U.S. economy, but that Trump’s initial tariffs appeared designed to favor politically competitive counties around the Great Lakes. But once retaliatory Chinese tariffs were factored in, the people hit the hardest were the ones who live in reliably Republican counties that voted heavily for Trump in 2016.
Still, Democrats are torn between the party’s new base and older alliances.
Opponents of foreign trade have historically been more motivated than supporters because trade deals can lead to factory closings and more direct disruptions in lives. But that dynamic may be shifting slightly as Trump’s tariffs hammer segments of the agricultural market, especially in the key early voting state of Iowa.
Indeed, some opponents of trade agreements have fretted that the presidential primary map can put them at a disadvantage.
Candidates who flock to Iowa often lambaste Trump’s tariffs there. The one heavily union state in the early four is Nevada, whose unions are heavy on service workers and don’t prioritize trade issues. Then the mega-states of California and Texas, both of which are dependent on foreign trade, will vote directly after the early four.
The Rust Belt, where the general election could well be decided, will largely vote later in the primary season and not as a bloc, possibly diluting the impact of the anti-trade wing of the party. That group’s clout has shrunk as the Democratic base is increasingly young, minority and urban — a demographic group that broadly favors trade.
“Democratic politicians are in a really interesting position. They actually have the opportunity to be really free-tradish, and I don’t think they’d suffer much in the polls,” said Scott Lincicome, a trade expert at the Cato Institute in Washington.
Still, few Democratic 2020 aspirants have become full-throated backers of free trade.
Most have offered vague calls for “fair trade.” Campaigning in West Virginia on Friday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren condemned the way Trump is communicating on trade, but not necessarily his policy.
“I don’t believe in tariff negotiation by tweet,” she said, calling the Chinese “bad actors on trade.”
“Our best way to fight back is with strength and with a coherent plan, not with hands.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s position is at odds with the conservative Koch network and much of the nation’s business community, but there are few Republicans willing to challenge him publicly. One of them is John Weaver, the chief strategist for John Kasich, Ohio’s former Republican governor, who has contemplated a primary challenge against Trump.
“Trump is anti-free trade. And the Republican Party is for whatever its master is for. If he switched on a dime tomorrow they’d switch tomorrow,” Weaver said. “You don’t have to be even on the Trump-level of a student history to know this is not good politics or good policy.”