By the Foreign Policy 2020 Team
President Clinton Signs NAFTA

International trade deals and trade issues spent much of the last three decades garnering bipartisan support. While there were detractors to trade deals on both ends of the political spectrum, these detractors rarely had enough influence to derail impending trade deals. But since the 2016 election, international trade deals have become a difficult issue for politicians in both parties. During the 2016 Presidential Election, Donald Trump derided the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country…”. Even Hillary Clinton, an early enthusiastic supporter for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), backed away from her embrace of it during the 2016 campaign.

Thus, it comes as little surprise that, on the surface, international trade deals enjoy minimal support across the 2020 democratic presidential candidates. Instead, most candidates have positioned themselves as firmly against international trades or against the TPP and skeptical of the USMCA (President Trump’s update to NAFTA). But is opposition to trade deals as total as it is often presented in narratives of the 2020 campaign? Or are many candidates adopting similar campaign positions to previous successful democratic nominees?

Trade last featured as a major political issue in the 1992 presidential campaign. President George H.W. Bush started negotiations with Mexico and Canada in 1991 for a trade agreement. In response to these negotiations and other political disagreements, independent candidate Ross Perot entered the race. He claimed that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” of jobs going to Mexico. During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton had tepidly endorsed NAFTA, but had wanted provisions that would mollify critics from labor and environmental groups. In this way, Bill Clinton walked a fine line between full-throated support of free trade and total opposition to it. Similarly, as a candidate for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Barack Obama spoke of the need to reform NAFTA and in opposition to further trade deals with Colombia due to human rights concerns. In his rhetoric, candidate Obama focused on ending ‘unfair’ trade deals.

During the 1992 and 2008 Presidential election, the ultimately successful candidate—for both the Democratic nomination and Presidential election—toed a fine line between avowed opposition to international trade deals and blind support. In 1992, despite Perot’s virulently anti-trade positions, he only earned 19% of the vote, a huge amount for an independent candidate, but not even a plurality of the vote. Additionally, in 2008, the only Democrat who was totally against trade deals was Dennis Kucinich, who earned no delegates. While neither Obama nor Bill Clinton won the election based solely on their positions on international trade, the positions they adopted were politically smart nonetheless. By charting a moderate course, they were able to appeal to those who liked trade agreements as well as to those who had reservations.

Walking this political tightrope has arguably become less important in recent years. Polls from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs show that in 2018, 82% of Americans (and 84% of Democrats) believe international trade is good for the U.S. economy, this represents an increase from the 57% of Americans and 55% of Democrats in 2004 who felt that international trade was good for the U.S. economy. Similarly, NAFTA, a perennial whipping boy for Democratic candidates, has grown from 43% of Democrats in 2004 to 73% of Democrats in 2018 viewing the deal as good for the U.S. economy. 76% of Democrats even believe that the United States should participate in the revamped TPP.

Yet rather than have candidates vocally announce their support for trade deals, several prominent democratic candidates have staked out complete opposition to the TPP (or its revamped version) or are continuing to walk the Bill-Barack balance beam on trade. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have positioned themselves as diametrically opposed to trade deals. Both candidates voted against fast track authority in 2015—a vote that Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar also took—and have made statements that they would not support an updated form of the TPP. Booker has taken a similar approach to an updated TPP, whereas Klobuchar has been more nuanced, arguing that the deal would require additional labor and environmental protections for her to support it. Even Andrew Yang considered a proponent of the updated TPP, only wants to re-enter it if policies are introduced to more widely share its benefits.

Senator Sanders speaking

In contrast to the TPP or its update, most of the candidates walk the Bill-Barack balance beam on the USMCA rather than express full-on opposition to the trade deal. Joe Biden supports the USMCA only if it contains stronger labor and environmental provisions, a position that Booker, Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer also take. While Sanders and Warren are the two most prominent trade deal skeptics, even their scathing criticism of USMCA do not completely shut the door to a trade deal between the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Ultimately, despite the rising tide of support for international trade deals, few democrats in the race are willing to give them a full-throated endorsement or be the candidate that sings their virtues. Instead, the candidates have opted to walk a narrow path set down by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in their successful presidential campaigns. It remains to be seen whether a voting base that increasingly views trade deals favorably will continue to warm to this approach or whether it will repel them from the democratic candidates.