Will Kamala Harris Be a Trade Warrior?

Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris speaks at a campaign event, on her first joint appearance with presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden after being named by Biden as his running mate, at Alexis Dupont High Sc
August 14, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: TradeKamala HarrisJoe BidenUSMCANAFTA

Will Kamala Harris Be a Trade Warrior?

She does not seem to be an economic nationalist or isolationist, and she makes clear that she believes the United States should engage with the world economically. At the same time, though, the terms of that engagement are a bit uncertain.


Kamala Harris is not really known for her views on trade policy, but over the course of the Democratic primary campaign and her career in the Senate she has weighed in a number of times on trade issues. Some of her statements are quite good from a free trader’s perspective. Others are not as good. Here’s a brief run down.

Let me start with a few positive, trade‐​friendly things she has said. At a primary debate in September 2019, she said:


I am not a protectionist Democrat. Look, we need to sell our stuff. And that means we need to sell it to people overseas. That means we need trade policies that allow that to happen.

She has also been very critical of Trump’s trade strategy and tariffs. For example, there was this:

We’ve got a guy in the White House who has been erratic on trade policy. He conducts trade policy by tweet, frankly born out of his fragile ego. It has resulted in farmers in Iowa with soybeans rotting in bins, looking at bankruptcy.

And also this:

Because of this so called trade policy that this president has that has been nothing more than the Trump trade tax that has resulted in American families spending as much as $1.4 billion more on everything from shampoo to washing machines.

And along the same lines, this:

I have a couple of thoughts. One is that this President continues to push forward what I call the Trump trade tax. This is about taxing American consumers. People are going to have to pay more for washing machines, pay more for clothing, pay more for shampoo. When we look at the trade policy he is conducting in terms of China, now with Mexico, it’s going to result in people here paying billions of dollars more a year for consumer products.

At the same time, she does sometimes use rhetoric that is more like those of economic nationalists, like this:

my trade policy, under a Harris administration, is always going to be about saying, we need to export American products, not American jobs. And to do that, we have to have a meaningful trade policy.

On trade agreements, her views are a little hard to follow. For example, she said this about NAFTA:

I would not have voted for NAFTA, because I believe that we can do a better job to protect American workers.

And this about USMCA (the renegotiated NAFTA):

after careful study and consultation with environmental and conservation leaders, I have concluded that the USMCA’s environmental provisions are insufficient—and by not addressing climate change, the USMCA fails to meet the crises of this moment. Californians know that the climate crisis is already here. Communities across our state have experienced exacerbated fires, storms, floods, and drought, and the devastation will only get worse if we fail to take bold and immediate action to address it. This agreement will set the standards for decades, and I believe Californians and all Americans deserve better and more immediate action. For these reasons, I oppose this deal.

And there was this about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP):

As I’ve long said, I will oppose any trade deal that doesn’t look out for the best interests of American workers and raise environmental standards, and unfortunately the TPP didn’t pass either test. I also raised concerns at the time about the lack of transparency in the process.

In my administration, labor and civil society groups will always have a seat at the table to ensure that trade agreements do achieve these important objectives. And I think that’s exactly what we need – pro‐​labor, pro‐​environment trade deals – because it’s clear Donald Trump’s protectionist approach has been a disaster. His trade war is crushing American farmers, killing American jobs, and punishing American consumers. I would work with our allies in Europe and Asia to confront China on its troubling trade practices, not perpetuate Trump’s failing tariff war that is being paid for by hard‐​working Americans.

Where does all of that leave us? She does not seem to be an economic nationalist or isolationist, and she makes clear that she believes the United States should engage with the world economically. At the same time, though, the terms of that engagement are a bit uncertain. What exactly would she want to see in a trade agreement before she would sign on to it? She clearly wants more labor and environment provisions in trade agreements, although USMCA had quite a lot and she still voted against it, arguing that climate change should be covered as well.

Maybe the answer is simply that she wants to change the scope of trade agreements, so that they still promote trade liberalization, but at the same time continue their expansion towards general global governance of non‐​trade issues. Vice presidents sometimes take on specific issue areas in which to play an active role. If Biden wins and Harris as VP has trade in her portfolio, we will find out more.

This article by Simon Lester first appeared in CATO on August 12, 2020.

Image: Reuters.