Government & Politics

Trade policy issues are blurring old lines, turning politics in 2016 inside out

A container is loaded onto a ship docked at the Port of Oakland in California.
A container is loaded onto a ship docked at the Port of Oakland in California. Bloomberg News

Jessica Podhola sits in a conference room near Ford’s Claycomo plant, angry over a proposed international agreement to make it easier and cheaper to import products from Asian nations.

“We can’t compete with Chinese glass or paint,” says Podhola, a union official.

Other labor leaders nod their heads in agreement. It’s a race to the bottom, one suggests.

Labor opposition to a free-trade deal would be unremarkable most years. Unions have long argued that free trade drives down wages and jobs, while business owners have argued for cheaper imports and exports.

But this isn’t a normal year.

Candidates and voters in both major parties appear to be switching long-held positions on trade policy: Free-trade Republicans are becoming protectionist, while some Democrats are moving the opposite direction on exports and imports.

The flip-flops are making it harder to reach consensus in Washington. A major trade deal with Asian nations has stalled largely because of tangled trade politics, for example.

But the changing views may also make it harder to decipher races up and down the ballot this year, from president to Congress and beyond. Trade policy no longer breaks along clean partisan lines.

Take Missouri’s U.S. Senate race.

Jason Kander, the Democrat, generally opposes free-trade agreements. That’s the traditional party position.

But it also aligns Kander with Donald Trump — the Republicans’ presumptive nominee for president. At the same time, it puts Kander at odds with prominent Democrats like President Barack Obama and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who say they support freer trade.

Sen. Roy Blunt, Kander’s opponent, doesn’t like Trump’s protectionism. That means Blunt agrees more with Obama than Trump on trade.


Consider this: In a recent Pew Foundation poll, only 38 percent of Republicans said free trade is good for America. Fifty-six percent of Democrats, on the other hand, support free-trade agreements.

Those views turn traditional politics on their head.

For years, Democrats have argued for protecting labor by imposing high taxes and tariffs on imports built by low-wage foreign workers. Republicans have generally argued for free international trade, allowing goods and services to pass between the U.S. and foreign nations with low taxes and few regulations.

Those days are ending. Obama spent much of last year pushing a new trade agreement with 11 Asian nations known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“We … live in a world where our workers have to compete on a global scale,” he said last year.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has waffled on the issue. As secretary of state she supported accelerated authority for TPP, but she has since changed her mind on the agreement and wants it rewritten.

“I do absorb new information,” she said in a debate last October.

Trump, by contrast, has made aggressive criticism of trade agreements a centerpiece of his campaign. That’s a major explanation for his support from blue-collar Americans who believe they’ve been injured by low-cost workers from abroad.

“I am all for free trade, but it’s got to be fair,” Trump said. “When Ford moves their massive plants to Mexico, we get nothing.”

Trump’s criticism of furnace maker Carrier’s decision to move some of its manufacturing to Mexico is a standard part of his stump speech. Trump routinely promises to enact brutally high taxes on goods sold by American companies but produced outside the U.S.

“Every car and every part manufactured … that comes across the border, we’re going to charge you a 35 percent tax,” he has promised, often to loud applause.

That commitment and others like it attract support from blue-collar Democrats and independents. Mainstream Republicans are worried.

“I’m for free trade,” said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was in Kansas City on Monday. Mexico does more business with his state than it does with Spain, he said.

But he conceded the Trump message is getting a close hearing.

“A lot of blue-collar workers have seen their jobs disappear,” he said, blaming technology for the loss, not free trade.

Both U.S. senators from Kansas voted to accelerate consideration of TPP, as did Blunt.

“Trade is generally good for the country, and particularly good for where we live,” the Republican said last year.

Kander, on the other hand, says previous trade agreements have not helped Missouri. He says the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, has cost the state 100,000 jobs.

“If you look at the effects of NAFTA on Missouri, they’ve not been positive,” he said.

Supporters of free-trade agreements say low import and export duties mean lower-cost consumer goods, from cellphones to sneakers, and jobs for Americans in export industries such as agriculture. But they concede their case is often more complicated that Trump’s.

“It’s easier to pinpoint the people who’ve been hurt by free trade,” said David Stokes, a Clayton, Mo., Republican who has written on trade issues. “It’s harder to pinpoint the very many small benefits we receive from it.”

The Department of Commerce said in April that 11.5 million American jobs depend on the export of goods and services.

But the benefits of exports vary from state to state. In 2014, according to one study, more than 40 percent of jobs related to the export of goods came from just five states: Texas, California, Washington, New York and Illinois.

In Texas, nearly 1.2 million jobs involve exporting products to other nations.

By contrast, Kansas and Missouri rank in the bottom half of states for export-related employment. In Missouri, 86,602 workers had jobs dependent on exports, the study found, while in Kansas 70,899 people owed their employment to overseas trade.

In 2014, figures show, the Kansas City area exported $8.3 billion in products, ahead of Baltimore, Tampa and Denver, although money doesn’t always translate to jobs.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican, said he supports accelerated consideration of TPP but has not taken a position on the measure itself.

But when asked whether he supports Trump’s position on trade, Yoder said no: “I don’t think trade agreements hurt the American people. I think they help the American people.”

That view is unpopular with a shrinking coalition of labor groups who insist their members are losing jobs to cheaper foreign workers who aren’t required to follow American rules on workplace safety and the environment. Free trade, they say, exacerbates the gap.

“We don’t get anything,” said Pat “Duke” Dujakovich, head of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. “We’re not going to see the Asian countries open up. … We’ll be delivering pizzas to one another.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has collected millions of votes in the Democratic presidential primaries, has made a similar case. “This country cannot continue to sustain the loss of millions of decent-paying jobs,” he said in April.

Clinton had made similar arguments, yet she is considered more of a free-trader than Sanders or Trump. Clinton’s husband, Bill, signed NAFTA in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, Clinton has collected two dozen endorsements from labor unions, including those representing manufacturing workers.

Whether the workers in those unions vote for her instead of Trump is a very open question, though.

“He’s saying all the right things,” Dujakovich said.

The tangled political web surrounding trade may have doomed consideration of the TPP in this year’s Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently told AgriPulse, a farm-related website, that the “political environment” surrounding trade was the worst he had seen in his career.

But trade disputes rarely disappear entirely, and the trade issue awaits the next president and Congress.

“The deal,” McConnell said, “does not go away.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

Jobs supported by exporting products


2009: 71,286

2014: 70,889


2009: 77,727

2014: 86,602

Source: Department of Commerce/International Trade Administration