Biden’s Record Was in the Spotlight During the Second Democratic Debate, Including on Trade

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Aug 01 2019 |
Getty Images

Biden now says he’d renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Well, we made it.

The second night of the second Democratic presidential debates is in the books, and some key manufacturing issues did make it into the spotlight on Wednesday night in Detroit, including trade.

Although this go-around lacked some of the passion featured on the first night — Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) are the two candidates who have made trade one of their top issues, after all — nearly everybody did mention it at some point. 

But it was frontrunner Joe Biden who got the most attention. The former vice president and longtime senator has the most substantial policy record of anybody in the race, and his rivals on Wednesday didn't hesitate to attack him on it on all fronts, including trade. And Biden made news, announcing he would "renegotiate" the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which President Trump pulled the United States out of on his first day in office. You'll recall, of course, that the TPP was negotiated under the Obama administration — which was when Biden served as vice president. So, Biden's flip-flop is a big f—ing deal.

Read on for more on what Biden said about trade and other manufacturing issues, as well as the remarks from all the other candidates who took part in Wednesday's debate.

Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.): Moderator Dana Bash asked the Centennial State senator about technology's role in job displacement, and Bennet responded that the real issue is "how are we going to remain competitive? It's not just about trade… it's about whether we're going to invest in this country anymore." He then argued against the recent tax cuts and trillions of dollars spent in the Middle East, noting that "for all the money I've just described, we could have fixed every road and bridge in this country. We could have fixed every airport… We could have fixed not just Flint, but every water system in this country."

Former Vice President Joe Biden: On trade, Biden's record is mixed. As former President Barack Obama's vice president, he was a vocal supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but on Wednesday he said the deal must be renegotiated. And in 1993, he voted for the passage of NAFTA. But Wednesday night, Biden dodged a question about the Trump administration's efforts toward a NAFTA renegotiation, and backtracked on his earlier advocacy for the TPP. That flip-flopping aside, it is clear Biden thinks the United States should remain open to trade.

"We make up 25 percent of the world's economy. In order — either China is going to write the rules of the road for the 21st century on trade or we are," Biden said. "We have to join with the 40 percent of the world that we had with us, and this time make sure that there's no one sitting at that table doing the deal unless environmentalists are there and labor is there."

Biden also talked up his role in the 2009 auto rescue, noting that the effort saved "tens of thousands of jobs here in this state." He also argued the Obama administration "invested significantly" in Detroit and led the effort to "help Detroit get out of bankruptcy and get back on its feet. I spent better part of two years out here working to make sure that it did exactly that."

Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.): The Garden State senator connected trade to climate change, noting that "climate change is not a separate issue. It must be the issue and the lens with which we view every issue… We have to go to far advances and make sure that everything from our trade deals, everything from the billions of dollars we spend to foreign aid, everything must be sublimated to the challenge and the crisis that is existential, which is dealing with the climate threat."  

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro: Unlike the other candidates, Castro didn't talk about trade specifically. But he did mention the General Motors layoffs when talking about the economy, noting that "there are a lot of Americans right now that are hurting. Just go and ask the folks that just received notice that they're getting laid off by General Motors, or ask the many folks who are sleeping on the streets in big cities and small towns across the United States, or ask fast food workers that I joined a couple of weeks ago that are working for minimum wage and can't provide for their families or pay the rent."

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio: The mayor went after Biden on trade, arguing that Trump's USMCA is "just as dangerous as the old NAFTA. It's going to take away American jobs like the old NAFTA, like it did to Michigan. We cannot have Democrats be party to a new NAFTA." Since Biden voted for the original NAFTA, De Blasio asked whether trade deals should "give working people power again, not just multinational corporations." (Biden's reply? "Yes.")

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii): Gabbard was asked about her opposition to the TPP, and the congresswoman explained that her central problem was that the TPP "gave away our sovereignty to a panel of international corporations whose rulings would supersede any domestic law that we would pass… this is extremely dangerous." She also noted the TPP would have had "a negative impact on domestic jobs and… lacked clear protections for our environment." But she also expressed opposition to Trump's tariffs on China, saying that Trump lacks "any clear strategic plan."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.): Like Biden, the Empire State senator talked trade after being asked how she'd beat Trump in Michigan, noting that she took a bus tour throughout the state to "talk about Trump's broken promises here in Michigan. He promised no bad trade deals." But Trump's ongoing trade war with China and the proposed USMCA are just that, Gillibrand said. 

Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.): Harris is no fan of Trump's trade tactics, and has been calling it a "Trump trade tax" on the campaign trail. She continued that criticism on Wednesday, arguing that Trump "betrayed the American people, he betrayed American families, and he will lose this election" because of his trade policies. She even mentioned the GM layoffs, although she exgaggerated just a tad, saying that "auto workers, we expect, perhaps hundreds of thousands will be out of jobs by the end of the year." Harris certainly isn't alone in her criticism of Trump on trade, but we hope she also begins to put forth more of her ideas for how she would handle trade as president — particularly with China — in the coming weeks.

Gov. Jay Inslee (Wash.): The top policy issue for Inslee is the climate crisis, and he stuck to this messaging on Wednesday. "Think about this: Literally the survival of humanity on this planet and civilization as we know it is in the hands of the next president," he said. "And we have to have a leader who will do what is necessary to save us."

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang: He had one of the best lines of the night when he said America needs to do the opposite of what we're doing right now, and "the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math." But Yang was also hyper-focused on working class job loss, arguing that universal basic income is needed because of automation. He even brought it up very specifically in his opening statement. While we disagree with his notion that automation is indeed such a big job killer, he was one of the few candidates on the stage who took the issue of factory job loss head-on. Amazingly, he was the first candidate in either debate to mention General Motors layoffs happening just 10 miles from the stage.

Click here for our wrap-up of the first night of the debate.

Matthew McMullan contributed to this report.