No, this isn’t an endorsement, but the way Donald Trump handled the dispute over its planned presidential debate format between CNBC on the one hand, and several Republican candidates including him on the other, shows precisely why he could well transform U.S. trade policy – and possibly American foreign policy – dramatically for the better if elected.
Along with Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, Trump protested CNBC’s original plans for two hours of actual debating time, plus up to 16 minutes of commercials, with no opening or closing statements by the contenders. The four protesting candidates wanted the event’s total time capped at two hours, and insisted that opening and closing statements be included in that total.
As these disagreements indicate, the gulf between CNBC and the four Republican hopefuls wasn’t terribly wide. But what’s important about this story is how and why these candidates – and especially Trump – prevailed even though the rest of the much more numerous Republican field apparently was fine with CNBC’s intentions.
Essentially, the four dissenters recognized that they had decisive leverage. (Their absence – especially Trump’s – could cost the cable network valuable ratings.) They threw around their weight. And they won. And when it comes to trade policy (and many other international challenges and opportunities facing the United States) that’s exactly what U.S. leaders from both parties have consistently failed to do for decades, even though the United States typically holds all the main cards.
This is especially true in trade policy, because the United States has long served as the market-of-last resort for a world full of major and minor trade powers alike that desperately depend on ever higher exports for adequate growth. But Washington’s failure to wield its relative power and leverage effectively arguably has undercut important American objectives in the national security sphere, too – for example, in persuading free-riding allies to bear a greater share of the West’s common defense burden.
I single Trump out because none of his three comrades in arms in this tussle has made trade policy a centerpiece of their campaigns. In fact, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his Kentucky counterpart Rand Paul have been strong supporters of the substance of America’s current trade strategy, though both opposed (for procedural and political reasons) the recent (successful) attempt in Congress to award fast track negotiating authority to President Obama. Moreover, unlike Trump, neither Carson nor Cruz nor Paul has touted deal-making and bargaining as among their strongest suits.
At the same time, Trump’s victory over CNBC underscores how incomplete his attacks on American trade diplomacy have been. For Washington has signed deficit-fueling and deals and reached similarly counterproductive trade policy decisions (like long coddling China’s currency manipulation) not mainly because U.S. officials can’t size up a situation accurately – a charge consistent with Trump’s claim that they’re incompetent and lack elementary street smarts.
Instead, they repeatedly fail at trade bargaining tables to advance and defend the interests of the American economy as a whole primarily because they haven’t considered that their job. They view themselves as agents of offshoring-happy multinational corporations, whose campaign contributions have ensured that their trade priorities prevail even when success comes at the expense of America’s productive sectors.
That’s why, as I keep arguing, Trump’s trade policy rhetoric should mainly demonize these U.S. corporate special interests, not foreign governments. (And why it’s encouraging that he’s shown signs of making this pivot.) At the same time, since the United States no longer dominates the world stage as in the early post-World War II decades, accurately assessing power balances and recognizing when compromises are needed has also become an important ingredient for diplomatic, and presidential, success.
So Trump should promise that he’s independent enough to be working for Main Street (because he doesn’t need that special interest money), that he’s tough enough to press clear advantages hard, and that he’s smart enough to “know when to fold ’em.” What other candidates can credibly make this combination of claims?