Why Won't Hillary Clinton Defend Trade Deals?

Most Democrats believe they and the U.S. economy benefit from globalization—but even as Trump attacks NAFTA and TPP, the Democratic nominee has declined to defend them.

President Bill Clinton signs side deal of the three-nation North American Free Trade Agreement at the White House. (Ron Edmonds / AP)

When Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton talk about trade they each appear to envision the same target audience: a 50-year-old auto worker in Michigan or Ohio hoping his job will last until retirement.

That crimped construct leaves no room for the very different perspective of someone like architect Charles Kelley in Portland, Oregon. Kelley is a principal with the global firm ZGF Architects, which has built a big business consulting with cities worldwide to help them grow in a more environmentally sustainable manner. Kelley works with about a dozen cities across six countries, with a special concentration in Asia. “Portland,” Kelley said, “has become responsible for setting the frame for how China will look at urbanism for the next 50 years.”

ZGF is just one member of “We Build Green Cities,” a loose consortium of Portland-based engineering, architectural, and environmental science firms that consult with cities around the world to develop sustainable communities through everything from promoting renewable energy to opening bike lanes. And “We Build Green Cities” is just one element of a vibrant Oregon export culture that ranges from local technology start-ups, to global behemoths like Nike, to a bustling international port—not to mention the lawyers and other professionals who service all of the above. “When I started, only a relatively small slice of our clients sold to the world,” said Wally Van Valkenburg, a managing partner at Stoel Rives, a leading Oregon law firm. “Now … I can’t imagine what the region would be like if we didn’t have the level of trade we have [today].”

The interests of places like Portland that view greater global economic integration as an opportunity, not a threat, have been almost completely eclipsed this year. Threatening tariffs and walls, Donald Trump insists that trade and immigration are undermining wages and devouring jobs (while also presenting migration from Mexico and the Middle East as a security threat). Clinton has defended immigration, but effectively surrendered to Trump on trade. Clinton has not only renounced her conditional early support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Obama negotiated with 11 Asian nations, but has also refused to defend the North American Free Trade Agreement that her husband Bill Clinton signed—an agreement Trump routinely calls “the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.”

From both a political and policy perspective, Clinton’s trade surrender makes little sense. Trade has prompted many of her worst moments across the three debates. While Trump has never appeared more confident than when he’s denouncing TPP or NAFTA, Clinton has been tongue-tied. Unwilling to make the persuasive alternative case for expanding trade, she has been reduced to limply suggesting that it doesn’t cause as many problems as Trump says. Not exactly a rallying cry.

Clinton’s suspicion of trade isn’t just a tactical maneuver: Veterans of the Bill Clinton administration say that internally she was always dubious about pursuing NAFTA. But her resistance to expanded trade reflects outdated assumptions about the Democratic coalition. As recently as 2004, Democratic and Republican voters were almost exactly as likely to view globalization as good for America overall, and international trade specifically as beneficial for the U.S. economy, consumers and their own living standards, according to annual surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

But the latest Chicago Council survey, released last month, shows that Democratic partisans are now much more likely than Republicans to view globalization and trade as a positive force on all those fronts. (Over two-thirds of Democrats now say trade benefits both the overall U.S. economy and their own living standards.) That reflects the movement of blue-collar whites largely skeptical of trade into the GOP, and their replacement in the Democratic coalition by minorities, Millennials, and college-educated whites, who are all more welcoming of it. (Millennials, on pace to become the electorate’s largest generation by 2020, are also the most open to the world, expressing more support than their elders in the Chicago Council survey for both trade and immigration.)

With Trump centering his campaign on mobilizing working-class whites, Clinton may rely even more than previous Democratic nominees on these pro-trade groups—even as she further sublimates their views. Similarly, given Trump’s strength in small-town America, in all of the big swing states, Clinton will be depending on big margins in metropolitan areas where trade is generally prized; virtually all big-city Democratic mayors have backed the Asian trade deal.

In the Chicago Council survey, voters from all parties worry that trade can eliminate domestic jobs. That concern can be overstated: Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, notes that NAFTA has likely saved many U.S. jobs that might otherwise have migrated elsewhere. The reason: It’s encouraged an integrated North American supply chain that allows American firms to produce autos and other products at less cost overall by shifting some manufacturing to Mexico. That preserves related jobs in the U.S. “If you are able to produce parts of your finished product in Mexico and lower your cost, you can increase your share of the market,” Wood said. “[Then] you have created more opportunity for that company at multiple levels-in manufacturing, design, marketing.”

Wood acknowledges that U.S. manufacturing workers who lose jobs in this exchange often are not equipped to compete for the new positions that the integration process creates. That creates an undeniable need for fresh thinking on how to connect those displaced workers with the economy’s new opportunities. But that necessity hardly justifies abandoning the growing global prospects lifting cities like Portland. When it comes to America’s hurtling demographic change, Clinton recognizes that the right question isn’t whether to accept it—since it can’t be reversed—but how to make it work. If she wins, she’ll eventually need to acknowledge the same about economic globalization.