Polls show that Democrats across the country are growing more and more supportive of free trade. A Gallup survey from earlier this year found that 80 percent of Democratic voters view trade as an opportunity, not a threat. This number increased by 17 percentage points compared to 2016. Among all voters, 72 percent expressed a positive view of trade, despite a great deal of criticism from some prominent politicians from both parties. Simply put, free trade, especially among Democrats, is far from a toxic political issue.
Why then, you might ask, haven't Democratic leaders in Washington gotten the memo? Indeed, instead of embracing the pro-trade trend among their supporters, they have instead opted to double-down on President Trump's appeal to protectionism.
Take, for instance, congressional Democrats' so-called "Better Deal" policy platform. In a section promising "A Better Deal on Trade and Jobs," their message is clear: free trade benefits corporations at the expense of American workers, and government actions are necessary to level the playing field.
As such, their proposal offers up a hodgepodge of ramped-up enforcement measures such as going after purported currency manipulators, renegotiating NAFTA to try to help working people, beefing up "Buy American" procurement requirements, and slapping taxes on companies that "outsource" jobs overseas.
If this sounds familiar, it's because it closely mirrors Trump's trade agenda. See, for instance, the U.S. Trade Representative's overview of the president's trade policy in which he calls for a similar set of heightened enforcement actions.
Virtually nowhere in the Democrats' plan is there any discussion of establishing new trade relationships with allies around the globe -- even though 41 million Americans work for companies dependent on imports and exports. Nowhere does the proposal speak of the benefits that trade brings by lowering the cost of intermediate goods, which make our manufacturers more efficient and competitive. And nowhere does the plan speak of the positive effects of trade on everyday Americans by making household items such as groceries, clothing, and school supplies cheaper and more plentiful.
Instead, Democrats are opting to embrace a nativist approach to trade that has been the centerpiece of their chief political rival. Political wisdom aside, this should be concerning to people who care about the economic well-being of the nation.
Already, the president has started the nation down a protectionist path by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement early in his tenure and now beginning NAFTA renegotiations that could disrupt the vital economic relationships with our top two trading partners.
Trump's trade instincts are the driving force behind possible new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. The president reportedly begged his chief of staff to "bring me some tariffs," a misguided plea that could dramatically raise the price of consumer goods ranging from automobiles to beer. How will Joe Sixpack respond to this type of tax hike?
Beyond that, our government's new protectionist leanings have emboldened American companies to seek punitive measures against their competitors under the auspices of heightened enforcement.
For example, Boeing has petitioned the government to punish Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier for selling its planes to U.S. airlines despite the fact that Boeing does not manufacture an aircraft in the same class as the ones built and sold by Bombardier. Meanwhile, U.S.-based lumber interests have successfully convinced the administration to slap hefty tariffs on imports of Canadian softwood lumber, a major component of homes and other buildings.
To be sure, our government's trade policies are moving in an unfortunate protectionist direction. That's hardly shocking given the nature of the presidential campaign. What is somewhat surprising is that Democrats in Washington are embracing this trend as they quixotically try to "out-Trump" President Trump on the issue. One might think they would take note of strong public opinion, particularly among their political base, in support of free trade. Instead, they are doubling down on bad economic policies.
Republicans should rejoice and use this opportunity to reclaim the mantle of the party of free trade and promote the benefits it provides to the entrepreneurial spirit and economic growth.
Brandon Arnold (@BrandonNTU) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the executive vice president at the National Taxpayers Union.
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