As the Democrats and Republicans settle on their presumptive nominees in the US primary elections, it is becoming clear that 2016 marks a possible reversal in the role of trade policy in US politics. Once almost universally accepted as progress, free trade and international trade agreements have come under fire in this year’s election, following years of economic stagnation and continued income inequality. Candidates in both parties have been staking out positions on trade in response to this sentiment.
Donald Trump has long asserted that the US is losing an ongoing trade war with other countries, and needs to focus on exporting more and importing less. Trump’s rhetoric targets both companies who move jobs overseas, and other countries with trade policies perceived as hostile. He has proposed a 35 percent tariff against imports from Mexico, and a 45 percent tariff against goods from China. Economic models have predicted that these policies would lead to economic recession, and a loss of up to 4 million jobs. Half of these losses would be due to likely retaliation from Mexico and China with their own tariffs against American goods.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the primaries, Hilary Clinton’s long time pro-trade stance has been challenged by the progressive wing of the party, represented by Bernie Sanders. Clinton’s aides say that she responds to each prospective free trade agreement on a case by case basis, opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership after supporting it as secretary of state. Clinton has a long history of support for free trade agreements, stretching back to her husband’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the nineties. She did, however, oppose the Central American Free Trade agreement in 2005.
Trump’s more consistent views could pose a challenge for Clinton in the general election. Though economists have stated that NAFTA created about 30 million jobs, the 680,000 that it eliminated were much more visible, according to policy experts. Other economists have supported the populist view that says free trade exacerbates inequality by not distributing benefits equally across sectors of society.
In any case, popular sentiment against trade agreements will not be going away by the general election in November, leading some to speculate that Donald Trump may gain an advantage over Clinton on this issue, riding a wave of populist sentiment in both parties. Bernie Sanders has been able to mount an unexpectedly significant challenge to Clinton in the primaries, tapping into this wave of populist protectionist sentiment on the left. The president has more direct authority regarding these trade agreements than on many other issues, so the positions of candidates on this issue are considered especially crucial.