Second Half of the First Democratic Debate: Trade is a Topic!

By Jeffrey Bonior
Jun 28 2019 |
“Getting funky on the mic (at the second night of the first Democratic presidential primary debates) like an old batch of collard greens.” — Snoop Dogg. | Getty Images


The second screening of the Democratic Presidential debate double-feature was held on Thursday evening in Miami and it not only was more confrontational, the issue of trade was briefly discussed.

Here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing, we are watching the candidates of both parties closely to hear their opinions on trade, manufacturing and infrastructure.

In Wednesday’s opening 10-candidate political polemic, trade was not a topic for discussion, although four of the presidential hopefuls did cite China as America’s most serious geopolitical threat.

The second of the Dems’ double feature (if you are too young to remember double-features at the movie theater you can bet Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and yours truly do) was filled with questions about immigration, crime, climate change, abortion-rights, gun control, and – for the second straight evening – healthcare.

The real fireworks came early in the debate when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), California’s former attorney general, used her prosecutorial background to confront Biden about his history of working on racial issues with segregationist senators in the 1970s.

From that point on Biden, the current front-runner in the crowded Democratic field, was on the defensive as the other candidates tried to distinguish themselves from the long-time Washington fixture.

But while trade was not a topic on Night One, it showed up midway through Thursday’s brouhaha when NBC’s Lester Holt questioned the candidates about it. U.S. businesses say China steals their intellectual property and party leaders on both sides accuse China of manipulating their currency to keep the cost of goods artificially low (which hurts American manufacturers).

Holt asked the candidates: “How would you stand up to China?”

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) quickly responded by saying he feels America’s biggest threat to our national security right now is Russia, not China.

But Bennet did give a cursory answer to the China problem.

“In China, I think the president has been right to push back on China but has done it in completely the wrong way,” he said. “We should mobilize the entire rest of the world, who all have a shared interest in pushing back on China’s mercantilist trade policies and I think we can do that.”

Bennet then finished his answer by reverting to a previous question about immigration.

Holt then addressed Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and attorney who had worked with the Obama administration. Yang had previously expressed concerns about technology and taking jobs.

Yang echoed Bennet that Russia is our greatest geopolitical threat saying we should focus on that before we start worrying about other threats.

Concerning China, Yang said: “Now, China, they do pirate our intellectual property. It’s a massive problem. But the tariffs and the trade war are just punishing businesses and producers and workers on both sides.

“I met with a farmer in Iowa that’s now disappeared and gone forever. And the beneficiaries have not been American workers or people in China. It’s been Southeast Asia and other producers that have stepped into the void. So we need to crack down on Chinese malfeasance in the trade relationship, but the tariffs and trade war are the wrong way to go.”

We at AAM are looking forward to hearing more of your ideas of a better way to go, Mr. Yang.

Finally, the trade question got around to Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana who is doing quite well in early polling despite a relative lack of national political experience.

“I mean first of all, we’ve got to recognize that the China challenge really is a serious one,” said the military veteran affectionately known as Mayor Pete. “This is not something to dismiss or give away. And if you look at what China is doing, they’re using technology for the perfection of dictatorship.

If you look at what China is doing, they’re using technology for the perfection of dictatorship. Pete Buttigieg

“But their fundamental economic model isn’t going to change because of some tariffs. I live in the industrial Midwest. Folks who aren’t in the shadows of a factory are somewhere near a soy field where I live. And manufacturers, and especially soy farmers, are hurting.

“Tariffs are taxes. And Americans are going to pay on an average of $800 more a year because of these tariffs. Meanwhile, China is investing so that they could soon be able to run circles around us in artificial intelligence. And this president is fixated on the China relationship as if all that mattered was the export balance on dishwashers. We’ve got a much bigger issue on our hands.

“But at the moment when their authoritarian model is being held up as an alternative to ours because ours looks so chaotic compared to theirs right now because of our internal divisions, the biggest thing we’ve got to do is invest in our own domestic competitiveness.”

Mayor Pete seems to get it … but we’ve got some quibbles with that “tariffs are taxes” rhetoric. Noted AAM President Scott Paul:

But just as Mayor Pete opened the door to a meaningful trade discussion on China, it was time for a TV commercial and another subject.

Unfortunately, the next subject wasn’t American manufacturing, an issue that carried Donald Trump to the presidency when he promised to bring manufacturing back to industrial states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He won the election in part by appealing to the long-time blue-collar workers in these once traditional Democratic strongholds.

The lone mention of manufacturing came during the first half of this double feature on Wednesday when Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who represents a factory-savaged district, said he can make the same promise as candidate Trump that manufacturing jobs can come back to his home state.

“Yes, I believe you can,” he said. “But first, the president came and he said don’t sell your houses to the people of Youngstown, Ohio. And then just in the last two years, we lost 4,000 jobs at a General Motors facility,” said Ryan, who represents northeast Ohio. “That rippled through our community. General Motors got a tax cut. General Motors got a bailout. And then they have the audacity to move a new car that they are going to produce to Mexico.

“I’ve had family members that have had to unbolt a machine from the factory floor, put it in a box, and ship it to China. My area where I come from is northeast Ohio, this issue we are talking about here, it’s been going on for 40 years. This is not a new phenomenon in the United States of America. Tim Ryan

“I’ve had family members that have had to unbolt a machine from the factory floor, put it in a box, and ship it to China. My area where I come from is northeast Ohio, this issue we are talking about here, it’s been going on for 40 years. This is not a new phenomenon in the United States of America.

“The bottom 60 percent haven’t seen a raise since 1980. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent control 90 of the wealth. We need an industrial policy saying we are going to dominate building electric vehicles, there’s going to be 30 million made in the next 10 years. I want them made in the United States. I want to dominate the solar industry and manufacture those here in the United States.”

If it seems like Ryan was stealing a page from Trump’s playbook.  It’s just that the plays are being drawn by the manufacturing workers of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

As the president returns from the G20 Summit after meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, we are sure to hear a lot more about trade during the debates

But let’s hope when the next Democratic debates are held in Detroit – a city once called the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II because of its unrivaled factory output – on July 30 and 31 that manufacturing is a major topic of discussion.