Democratic presidential candidates have mixed positions on trade

Anjali Bhatt (PIIE), Gary Clyde Hufbauer (PIIE) and Euijin Jung (PIIE)


This blog updates a previous post a year ago.


Trade has not come up very much in the Democratic presidential campaign, but the number of Americans who say global trade should be a top policy priority grew by 5 percentage points from 2011 to 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. President Donald Trump’s trade policies, including the imposition of tariffs to get trading partners to make concessions, are supported by about half the voters, making it tricky for Democratic candidates advocating a tough approach on this issue to differentiate themselves from Trump or each other.

The table below summarizes the positions of eight Democratic candidates on three key trade issues based on the public record: free trade in general; the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) signed in 2019, replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and China (Section 301 tariffs imposed to combat alleged unfair practices by that country). The table is based on their comments in news articles, interviews, and social media. The order of candidates in the table is based on recent polling results.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), along with Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), are generally critical of recent trade agreements. However, Warren and Gabbard joined Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) to vote for the USMCA, citing its strengthened environmental and labor protection regulations. Former vice president Joe Biden has said he supports the deal, as does Pete Buttigieg, who answered in the affirmative when directly asked if he would have voted for the USMCA if he were in Congress. Sanders voted against the USMCA, and Tom Steyer said he would have voted against it.  

Regarding China, most Democratic contenders have condemned Trump’s trade war with China and suggest alternative means, such as working with international allies, to pressure China on its trade practices. Biden has said the tariffs on products harming American farmers would “come off on day one.” Buttigieg said he would keep subsidies for farmers affected by tariffs, which may imply that the tariffs themselves would stay in place. Gabbard and Steyer are the only candidates to say they would remove President Trump’s tariffs on US imports from China.

As the election date draws closer, the positions of Democratic candidates on trade policy may become clearer. But past history indicates that candidates can adjust their positions once in office, often claiming credit for improving the trade deals that they denounced while running for office.  

Positions of eight 2020 Democratic presidential candidates on three key trade issues
Candidate Attitudes toward trade agreements and globalization US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) China (Section 301 tariffs and trade war retaliation)
Bernie Sanders
(Senator from Vermont)

January 14, 2020: “The heart and soul of our disastrous trade agreements…is that we have forced American workers to compete against people in Mexico, in China, elsewhere, who earn starvation wages, $1 or $2 an hour.” (source) “We need a trade policy that benefits American workers and creates living-wage jobs, not unfair trade agreements written by multi-national corporations.” (source)
Policy suggestions include:

  • Eliminating tax deductions for corporations for expenses involved in moving operations abroad.
  • Include binding labor, environmental, and human rights standards in all trade agreements texts.
  • Include enforceable rules about currency manipulation in all trade agreements. (source)
  • Place a fee on imported Carbon Pollution-Intensive Goods (essentially a carbon border tax). (source)

View Sanders’ full trade agenda. Voted against Trade Promotion Authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (source), the US-China Relations Act of 2000 (source), and granting China “most-favored nation” status. (source)

Does not support & voted against (source)

  • January 14, 2020: “I will not vote for a trade agreement that does not incorporate very, very strong principles to significantly lower fossil fuel emissions in the world.” (source)
  • February 7, 2020: “Nobody believes that under this Trump trade agreement that they will not be continued and significant outsourcing of jobs into low wage Mexico, where workers are paid in some cases less than $2 an hour. So I think the right vote was the vote against that agreement. I don’t apologize for that.” (source)
  • Voted against the original NAFTA deal. (source)
“Dealing” with China is an issue, but disagrees with Trump’s implementation against China. (source) The Trump administration is correct to put pressure on China to reform its practices but the “problem is that the Trump administration is mainly interested in addressing some of the imbalances between America and China overall, when it also needs to address basic drivers of economic inequality.” (source) In response to a question about how to deal with Chinese intellectual property theft, industrial subsidies, and other issues: “We can place far more pressure on China to change its policies if we work together with the broader international community and the other developed economies.” (source)
Michael Bloomberg
(former Mayor of New York City, New York, founder and owner of Bloomberg LP)

May 31, 2019, op-ed in Bloomberg News: “Stop Trump on Trade” (link), says trade is a matter of mutual advantage
Would “…give State, Treasury, and Commerce Departments the mandate and resources to…negotiate high-standard trade deals.” (source) Policy suggestions include:

  • “Expand and improve the existing Trade Adjustment Assistance program, widening eligibility to cover workers affected by changes such as automation and the transition to a green economy, not just foreign competition.” (source)
  • “Expand Trade Adjustment Assistance to coal workers.” (source)
  • Open to joining an adjusted  Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). (source)
  • “…a range of new development initiatives to support affected workers and their communities, encompassing investment incentives, place-based wage subsidies, help with training and retraining, and more.” (source)

January 23, 2020, on the CPTPP: “The Obama administration was right to pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and President Trump was wrong to walk away from the deal…. As president, I will commit to bring the U.S. into a new and improved TPP that, among other things, would do more to protect American intellectual property, enforce tougher labor and environmental standards in the other member countries, and provide clear benefits for American workers. The ultimate goal of any trade deal is to improve the U.S. economy and the incomes of Americans.”


  • “The 26-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement was due for an overhaul. I support what Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats did to successfully change President Trump’s original plans for the USMCA, improving it in vital respects — including lowering pollution and increasing resilient infrastructure, eliminating unfair hand-outs to big corporations, and secured provisions to lower drug costs and improve access to life-saving medicines, and giving the USMCA the strongest enforcement mechanisms of any U.S. trade agreement.” (source)
April 19, 2018: Trump administration trade policies “hamper economic growth and strain ties with nations around the world, including China….  Cooperation between the US and China is critical to meeting all of the challenges facing our world, from economic growth and trade to security and climate change.”
(source) January 8, 2020: “…you should read the story about who's actually paying the tariffs. It's virtually 100 percent the American consumer, not the Chinese…For us to walk away from China and have a battle with them when we need them to do something that's going to be in not just our interest, but our salvation, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me.” (source) January 23, 2020: “…the best way for the U.S. to handle the rise of China is to strengthen our alliances in Asia and make the domestic investments necessary to ensure our businesses and workers have the tools they need to out-innovate and out-compete the Chinese.” January 23, 2020: “President Trump’s tariff war with China has instead cost American farmers and workers billions, without altering unfair Chinese trade practices.” (source)
Joe Biden
(former Vice President to President Obama)

Calls for enforceable free trade + US-led effort to “write the rules of the road for international trade,” including worker and environmental protection, challenging corporate concentration, corruption, and climate change. (source)

  • January 14, 2020: “There will be no trade agreements signed in my administration without environmentalists and labor at the table. And there will be no trade agreement until we invest more in American workers…. the problem is that 95% of the customers are out there. So we better figure out how we begin to write the rules of the road, not China.” (source)

July 31, 2019, asked if he would rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a deal he helped design under the Obama administration but ultimately failed to pass Congress): “I'd renegotiate…I would not rejoin the TPP as it was initially put forward.” (source) View Biden’s economic plans.


  • Supports changes in enforcement mechanisms and support from labor movement. (source)
  • Voted for original NAFTA deal. (source)

“China problem” = intellectual property theft, violating WTO rules, steel dumping, industrial subsidies and state-owned enterprises, not trade deficits and agricultural products

  • Tariffs that punish steel dumping, IP theft, WTO rule violations are justified (source)
  • In response to a question about tariffs on imports from China on day one: “Those tariffs come off in terms of farmers, but other tariffs may go on in terms of the violation of the stealing of intellectual property, violating WTO.” (source)
  • January 15, 2020: “China is the big winner of Trump’s ‘phase one’ trade deal with Beijing…[the deal] preserves an economic relationship in which China maintains its illegal and unfair trade practices.” (source)
Pete Buttigieg
(former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana)

July 2019: “We cannot just put up walls around our economy. We need to be setting the rules of the road for the future…” (source) and “Globalization is not going to go away.” (source)

  • Would not join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the successor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that does not include the US), because it “lacks critical trade provisions on labor, environment, and the digital economy, and does not align closely enough with the needs and interests of American workers.” (source)

Buttigieg’s economic agendas can be found here and here.

January 14, 2020: In response to a question if he supports the USMCA: “Yes, it has been improved, it is not perfect.” (source)

November 21, 2019: Trade war “shouldn’t have been started in the first place.” (source) August 18, 2019: “It's also a fool's errand to think you're going to be able to get China to change the fundamentals of their economic model by poking them in the eye with some tariffs.” (source)

  • It will not “suffice to reduce the China relationship to a tit-for-tat trade fight, as if all that matters is the export-import balance….” (source)
  • Would keep subsidies in place for farmers affected by trade war/Chinese tariff retaliation. (source)
  • Strengthen, rather than strain, alliances in order to put collective effort on China for unfair economic practices. (source)

Reduce US vulnerability to economic interdependence with China by making sensitive items in the US. (source)

Elizabeth Warren
(Senator from Massachusetts)

Warren was one of the first candidates to release detailed trade plans. PIIE analysis can be found here and here. January 14, 2020: “We need a coherent trade policy. We need a policy that actually helps our workers, our farmers. We need them at the table, not just trade policy written for big, international companies.” (source) Highlights the need to “completely transform our approach to trade” (source) Policy suggestions include:

  • Expand labor, environment, consumer group representation on advisory committees; create advisory committees for consumers, rural areas, and each region of US.
  • USITC analyses of region-by-region impact of trade agreements.
  • Use a fast track process only when there is unanimous committee agreement in House and Senate.
  • Establish conditions for countries to meet prior to entering any trade agreement with the US, namely: Enforce labor rights enumerated by the International Labour Organization, uphold human rights and religious freedoms outlined by State Department, comply with Trafficking Victims Protection Act, be party to Paris Climate Agreement, eliminate all domestic fossil fuel subsidies, ratify Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, comply with OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting project, not appear on Treasury’s list of currency manipulators.
  • Adopt border carbon adjustment taxes.
  • Impose/enforce country-of-origin labeling rules.

Warren’s trade agenda can be found here and a larger economic plan here. Strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (source)

Supports & voted for (source)

  • January 14, 2020: In response to a question of if she supports the USMCA: “I do… This new trade deal is a modest improvement… It will give some relief to our farmers. It will give some relief to our workers.” (source)
  • February 7, 2020: Asked about her vote for the USMCA in the Senate: “So this NAFTA provision, after a lot of negotiation with Democrats, Senator Sherrod Brown helped make it a whole lot better. This makes things somewhat better for workers and for farmers and when I see a law that makes things somewhat better for hardworking people in this country….” (source)

Calls Trump’s approach to China “incoherent tariff-by-tweet strategy” (source)

  • Acknowledges tariffs are an important tool, but not a long-term solution to “our failed trade agenda.” (source)
  • Tariffs are “one part of reworking our trade policy overall.” (source)
  • US must be “tough” on China. (source)
  • China is a “rule-breaker.” (source)
Amy Klobuchar
(Senator from Minnesota)

“Exporting is literally a world of opportunity.” (source) “With 95 percent of the world’s customers living outside our borders, opening up new markets and lowering trade barriers is critical to our agricultural and rural economy.” (source) Policy suggestions include:

  • Restart President’s Export Council.
  • Enact legislation based on her Promoting Rural Exports Act: establish a Rural Export Center to help firms export products to new markets abroad.
  • Add Customs and Border Patrol personnel to enforce US trade laws.
  • Support the State Trade and Export Promotion Grant Initiative.
  • Preventing the outsourcing of jobs overseas by passing and signing into law her Removing Incentives for Outsourcing Act closing tax loopholes on corporations’ overseas earnings.

Klobuchar’s economic plans can be found here, here, and here

Supports & voted for (source)

  • January 14, 2020: “I support the USMCA, I am glad that these improvements were made that are supported by people like Richard Trumka and Sherrod Brown on labor and environment and on pharma….” (source)
  • February 7, 2020: Asked about her vote for the USMCA in the Senate: “…having no trade agreement with Canada and Mexico puts us at such a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with China and pushing China to do better when it comes to climate change.” (source)

January 14, 2020: “We need a big trading block with North America to take on China. And the way you are stronger against China is with our allies.” (source) December 11, 2019: “Despite some very tough rhetoric, the Trump administration’s attempt to rebalance our relationship with China is focused on the wrong things. His trade war has already cost our country three hundred thousand jobs, but it has done nothing to forestall the long-term competition we face.” (source) June 27, 2019: China is the greatest economic threat to the US. (source) Policy suggestions include:

  • Ensure the federal government is aggressively combating illegal Chinese steel dumping including through expanded personnel to enforce our trade laws and increased inspections of steel imports at ports of entry. She will also direct the U.S. Department of Labor to expedite approval of Trade Adjustment Assistance petitions for workers from the affected mining operations. (source)
Tom Steyer
(Hedge fund manager, philanthropist)

“An American economy that is firing on all cylinders out-competes and out-innovates others on the world stage. It adheres to the rule of law, respects its workers, seeks fair and open trade agreements, and is prepared to meet economic and environmental challenges at home and abroad.” (source) Policy suggestions include:

  • Negotiate trade agreements with vital economic partners and emerging regions of the world to strengthen key domestic economic sectors and rebuild American national security relationships.
  • Trade agreements will be negotiated in a manner that includes the voices and reflects the input of all stakeholders, particularly environmental groups, indigenous populations, and labor unions.

View Steyer’s economic agenda.

Does not support

  • January 14, 2020, following a discussion on the USMCA: “I would not sign this deal, because if climate is your number one priority, you can't sign a deal, even if it's marginally better for working people until climate is also taken into consideration.” (source)
  • February 7, 2020: Asked about his opinion on the USMCA: “…the USMCA is something, that’s the first step, but the second step is exactly what Bernie Sanders is saying. Use access to our market as a negotiating thing to make sure not only that we represent American workers, but that we represent the American people in the long run and we make sure that we get a safe climate deal.” (source)
January 14, 2020, in response to how he would help farmers get back on their feet: “On the first day, I would undo Mr. Trump’s tariffs.” (source) September 2019, in response to a question about US-China technological decoupling: “Like it or not, we are going to have to engage with China both economically and politically. It’s impossible for us to completely divorce these relationships…I believe we should stand up strongly to protect the interests of American intellectual property and punish those that don’t obey the laws.” (source)
Tulsi Gabbard
(Congresswoman from Hawaii)
“Free trade doesn’t cut it. We deserve transparent trade, green trade, and trade that empowers our middle class and domestic economy. The American people deserve fair trade.” (source) Strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, attributing her disagreement to the deal giving away sovereignty of the American people and our country, giving away American jobs, and threatening the environment. (source) Gabbard’s economic plans can be found here and here.

Did not support NAFTA but voted for USMCA

  • August 16, 2017: “For too long, hardworking Americans have suffered, lost their jobs and livelihoods as a consequence of large trade agreements like NAFTA, while multinational corporations and special interests continue to make record profits.” (source)
  • Voted “Yea” on USMCA in the House in December 2019. (source)

February 5, 2019: “Trump’s trade-war against China has damaged, not helped, our economy, has undermined our efforts to denuclearize North Korea, and has strengthened the hand of Chinese anti-American militarists.” (source)

  • July 31, 2019, in response to a question of whether she would keep President Trump’s tariffs on China in place: “I would not, because the approach that President Trump has taken has been extremely volatile without any clear strategic plan, and it has a ravaging and devastating effect on our domestic manufacturers, on our farmers, who are already struggling and now failing to see the light of day because of the plan that Trump has taken.” (source)