July 31, 2019 11:16AM

Senator Warren’s Protectionist and Misleading Trade Plan and Rhetoric

Senator Warren is said to have a "plan" for every policy area. But on trade policy, her plan and her general rhetoric on the issue are not very impressive. It would be better if she had no plan at all and just governed by tweet! (Ok, not really).

She recently announced her trade plan here. I gave it a quick rundown and concluded: "my sense is that this proposal means there would probably not be any trade deals in a Warren administration, while there would be various proposals to add new protectionism to U.S. domestic trade policy." The Fletcher School's Dan Drezner took some more time and offered this assessment: "Elizabeth Warren has put forward a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad trade program. Other Democratic candidates would be wise to avoid this garbage fire and come up with something more sensible." And CFR's Ted Alden said this: "When voters in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania look at the candidates’ trade policies this fall, the question will be what’s in it for them—for their economic futures and the opportunities for their children? Warren’s plan ticks a lot of Democratic Party boxes, but offers no compelling answer to that question."

At last night's Democratic primary debate, there was a chance to talk about this plan, and the candidates got into the details a little bit. Two things struck me about Warren's remarks at the debate: They were misleading, and they completely ignored some obvious criticisms.

For example, she said:

Anyone who thinks that these trade deals are mostly about tariffs just doesn’t understand what’s going on. Look at the new NAFTA 2.0. What’s the central feature? It’s to help pharmaceutical companies get longer periods of exclusivity so they can charge Canadians, Americans, and Mexicans more money and make more profits.

Whatever you think of a 12 year exclusivity period for biologic drugs (I'm skeptical of it), it's definitely not the case that it is the "central feature" of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. There are so many features to trade agreements these days that it's hard to say what the "central" one is, but lower tariffs is still a main one, rules on e-commerce are important, and there are a wide range of other provisions as well. It's true that there is a controversial provision on biologic exclusivity, but it's hardly the "central feature."

Along the same lines, she says: "We're going to negotiate our deals with unions at the table." But trade agreements have already been expanded to cover labor rights. Given the extensive labor provisions in modern trade agreements, including the USMCA, it is clear that unions already have a big role "at the table" to help draft these agreements.

And she didn't have a response to John Delaney's point that her approach is "so extreme that it will isolate the American economy from the world." It's really not clear that any trade deals could be negotiated under her approach. And what about China, the biggest trade issue of all? What's her plan there? She didn't have much to say on this.

Of course, politicians have been known to change their positions, so it may be that as president she would conduct trade policy differently than she is currently suggesting. Right now she is talking to a particular domestic audience. As president, she would have to meet some foreign counterparts, and her view of the world might change a bit. For now, though, she and many of the other Democratic presidental candidates are, as my colleague Dan Ikenson put it yesterday, "failing us on trade."