It wasn’t history’s most exciting debate, but there were points that the media will pick up on and that will generate a lot of buzz in the coming days. Most notable here of course was the Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders exchange on that saucy CNN story from yesterday, an exchange that probably favored Warren because she came armed with the better line, about the men on the stage having lost 10 elections and the women none.
But I’d like to focus on a topic that I’m certain will get zero pickup, at least nationally, but that might be an important factor in the caucuses, and in a way that could be completely unexpected to most people.
If you read the general political press, you have become convinced that America is staunchly against free trade. Donald Trump changed the Republicans from a free-trade party to an anti free-trade party—his most important and obvious act of ideological apostasy against traditional conservatism, and an issue on which he won total victory, bending the party to his will. And on the Democratic side, it’s an even more obvious given. Bernie Sanders and others have conclusively turned the Democrats into a protectionist party.
And sure enough, on Tuesday night’s debate stage, Sanders’ rhetoric reflected that. When the USMCA, the renegotiation of NAFTA, came up, he charged forward and took the lead in denouncing it. He said he’d opposed every big recent trade deal and noted of this one that it “will result in the continuation of the loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs as a result of outsourcing.”
Funny thing, though. He was alone. Every other candidate on the stage supports USMCA. Joe Biden and Tom Steyer were not directly asked, but both are on record backing it. But Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg were asked, and they all said they were for it. Said Warren: “This new trade deal is a modest improvement. Senator Sanders himself has said so. it will give some relief to our farmers, it will give some relief to our workers. I believe we accept that relief, we try to help the people who need help, and we get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal.”
Interested to hear the “other lefty” in this primary talk like that? You shouldn’t be. (And by the way, one of the subtly interesting aspects of this debate was the way Warren began to put some daylight between herself and Sanders, on trade and health care and other matters.)
Here’s a little fact you’d never know from most political reporting. America is pro-free trade. Democrats are pro-free trade. Yes, Democrats. And while I haven’t seen any Iowa-specific polls, it would appear that Iowans, and Iowa Democrats, are pro-free trade.
Every few months, I check the latest polling on trade. I’m not an ardent free-trader or protectionist. Some areas of the country, and some industries, have been terribly hurt by free trade; other areas, and other industries, gain from access to the overseas markets. Trade deals in recent history have heavily benefited corporate power. There is certainly no doubt of that. But that doesn’t mean they have to, if Democrats insist on certain labor and environmental principles.
Anyway, back to those polls. In 2015 and 2016, when Trump and Sanders were gaining steam, support for free trade sank (though it never, to my knowledge, went below 50 percent). But that has changed. And last August, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that support for free trade was at an all-time high: By 64-27 percent, Americans said free trade brought more benefit than harm. Majorities of Republicans and Democrats agreed with the statement that “free trade is good for America, because it opens up new markets, and the country can’t avoid the fact of a global economy.”
And that brings us to last December’s House vote on USMCA, which passed by a whopping 385 to 41. All three of Iowa’s House Democrats voted for it: Cynthia Axne, Abby Finkenauer, and David Loebsack all said yes. The AFL-CIO, which is important in the state, said yes. In addition to that, naturally, Iowa’s farmers and leading business associations are all for it. Environmental groups are strongly opposed.
The Senate hasn’t voted on it yet. It will do so soon—maybe before the Feb. 3 caucuses. Sanders will vote no, but Warren (and Klobuchar) will vote yes. It’s not likely to generate a ton of media interest, but it could shift a lot more votes here than most people realize, and the exchange may have been this debate’s sleeper moment.