On Trade Policy, Trump and Biden Converge

That convergence is part of a global trend in which economic priorities are shifting — and becoming more consonant with the priorities of the Holy See.

President Donald Trump speaks after touring Snap-On Tools in Kenosha, Wisconsin, April 18, 2017, prior to signing the Buy American, Hire American Executive Order.
President Donald Trump speaks after touring Snap-On Tools in Kenosha, Wisconsin, April 18, 2017, prior to signing the Buy American, Hire American Executive Order. (photo: Saul Loeb/AFP / Getty)

In an election season in which contrasts on policy are sharp while disparagement and division run high, economic policy is one area where there is sometimes more convergence than conflict. 

While the dominant economic story of the election season is the effect of the pandemic and the policy response, there are other economic issues. While there is a division between the Republican and Democratic proposals on taxation, for example, there is remarkable common ground on trade.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden went to Michigan on Sept. 9 to unveil a key part of his economic platform: “Buy American” and “Made in America,” proposals to penalize companies that produce offshore and to provide tax incentives to companies that make their products in America.

If that sounds a bit like “Make America Great Again,” President Donald Trump’s signature slogan, it’s because — on trade policy at least — the two campaigns are not far from each other. That convergence is part of a global trend in which economic priorities are shifting — and becoming more consonant with the priorities of the Holy See.

In the 1990s, the dominant economic consensus was in favor of smaller government, lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and open trade. Those policies were associated with Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, but they had a wider reach. 

That was most evident under President Bill Clinton — he declared “the era of big government is over” in 1995 — who became a champion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), despite opposition from the traditional labor left. Clinton’s adoption of the smaller-government-open-trade position was indicative of how broad the new consensus was. Sen. Joe Biden voted in favor of NAFTA.

On the Church side, St. John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, while not abandoning solidarity with workers and the preferential option for the poor, offered a defense of economic liberty and called for including the poor nations in the circle of productivity and exchange. It warned against the moral dangers of big government — the “social-assistance state” — and criticized rich countries from excluding poorer countries from open trade. 

That was then; this is now. 

Trump ran for president as a vehement opponent of free trade, and the Republican Party has abandoned its open-trade position in favor of managed trade and even protectionism. In the current campaign’s overheated rhetoric, Trump frequently attempts to link Biden to free trade — the former bipartisan consensus and Republican priority — as an attack line.

“Biden voted for the NAFTA disaster, the single worst trade deal ever enacted; he supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, one of the greatest economic disasters of all time,” Trump said.

The 1990s consensus of smaller government and open trade began to give way under George W. Bush, who was a “big government” conservative. He favored tax cuts, but not spending restraint. President Barack Obama moved away from tax cuts and expanded government, notably on health care, but maintained the open-trade consensus. 

By the mid-2010s, the international consensus began to shift on economic policy. Thinkers, both conservative and progressive, began to worry that while open trade (globalization) led to economic growth, the gains from that growth flowed too much toward the wealthy. Real wages for unskilled labor stagnated or fell behind.

Beginning in 2013, the Vatican’s economic statements — led by the refrain of Pope Francis, “this economy kills” — shifted emphasis from reducing poverty through market-led growth toward government redistribution. Pope Francis has been particularly scathing in identifying financial speculation as creating a “liquid economy” that favors investment returns over employment, a priority of capital over labor. He links this to the life issues under the evocative image of the “throwaway society.”

While Pope Francis has mostly in mind the poorer nations of the world, similar complaints have been heard on behalf of the workers in rich countries. The twin political earthquakes of 2016 — the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump — were both advanced on behalf of workers who do not belong to the “liquid economy” but rather manufacture particular goods in particular places. 

This priority on workers in economic policy led to Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA and his “trade war” with China, which resulted in Chinese concessions on some trade matters. Trump has even put tariffs on goods from friendly countries, like Canadian steel and lumber. On the Democratic side, Biden’s emphasis on “Buy American” and “Made in America” is in continuity with those policies. 

In 2020 it is the Democratic challenger who is seeking to displace the Republican incumbent as the champion of the working class, a remarkable turnaround. It is a stark contrast from 1992; then both George H. W. Bush and Clinton were on the open-trade side, fending off criticism from, for example, unions defending workers’ interests.

From a Catholic point of view, with a long history of solidarity with labor and a wariness of large capital interests, this is an area where bipartisan support is possible — in dramatic contrast to the issues of life (abortion and the federal death penalty), religious liberty and immigration, where the major parties differ greatly.

Immigration provides another twist in the changing consensus. While liberalized immigration is a high priority for both Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops, the priority on workers is challenging that view. While Trump and Biden clash significantly on some immigration issues — the border wall and the “dreamers,” for example — there is a consensus on limiting the economic competition that illegal foreign workers give to American workers. During the Obama administration — when Biden was vice president — deportation of illegal immigrants ramped up considerably, a policy that Trump has continued. 

In Europe, the shift toward protecting workers in the “real” as opposed to “liquid” economy has been politically linked to the unpopularity of continued mass immigration, creating a rift between such parties and the Church’s position on immigration. That dynamic plays out in the United States as well, but to a lesser degree. Immigration involves other hot-button issues which divide. On trade, though, there is a political and religious convergence.