The vast majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of global trade. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a clear message to that group during last night’s debate: Joe Biden’s your man.
“Joe Biden wants to repeal all of the tariffs that President Trump put into effect,” Pence claimed—testing out the unusual political strategy of telling voters that your opponent wants to cut taxes. In fact, Pence’s pitch on Biden’s behalf is such a straightforward promise that could appeal to huge swaths of Americans on both sides of the partisan divide that the real head-scratcher is why Biden hasn’t embraced it already.
The case for repealing Trump’s tariffs is a strong one. The tariffs on Chinese imports have largely failed to bring about any of the benefits Trump promised, and both America and China seem to have already disregarded what little progress was made with the signing of a limited trade deal last year. The White House promised that tariffs would help rejuvenate American manufacturing, but the added costs from tariffs on industrial inputs were one of the chief reasons why the manufacturing sector had fallen into recession even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. America’s trade deficit with China, which Trump promised to reduce, is now larger than it has ever been.
When you add them all up, the tariffs are one of the biggest tax increases in recent American history, and the cost is borne—despite what Trump and his allies like to claim—entirely by American consumers and businesses. The administration has spent $28 billion just to fix some of the messes these policies have created for American farmers.
And while trade issues will probably never swing as many voters as culture war battles, people have noticed that the trade war isn’t going well. Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they are “concerned” about how tariffs are adding to the cost of household products—a cost that could be as high as $1,200 annually for an average household.
And now the vice president says, again, that all that could go away if you vote for Biden. Seriously.
Even more incredible: Biden has failed to scoop up this Trumpian fumble and return it for a touchdown.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.), Biden’s running mate and Pence’s opponent in last night’s debate, refused to engage Pence’s claim that a Democratic administration would revoke the tariffs. That’s what we’ve come to expect from Biden’s campaign, which has been careful to avoid making any commitments with regard to tariffs. Once a fairly ardent free-trader—at least for a Democrat—Biden’s approach throughout this year’s campaign has been to criticize Trump’s trade war for being self-defeating and foolish while simultaneously winking at the protectionists on the left who would probably love Trump’s tariffs if they’d been imposed by a Democratic administration.
Meanwhile, Biden is pushing a dubious “Buy American” policy that would translate into a series of expensive and ineffective regulations in the name of economic nationalism. Over and over again, Biden and Harris have been happy to point out the many failures of Trump’s anti-trade policies, but they don’t seem willing to apply those lessons going forward.
“You lost that trade war,” Harris said. “Farmers have experienced bankruptcy because of it. We are in a manufacturing recession because of it.”
She’s right. It’s too bad Biden won’t commit to stop fighting it.