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When, as now expected, Vice President Joe Biden finally enters the presidential race, one of his top challenges will be winning the lion’s share of endorsements from organized labor over main Democratic nomination rivals – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. And if, as expected, trade policy records are a big part of most unions’ litmus tests, he’ll have a hard time convincing labor that he’s dedicated to making trade agreements and related decisions more worker-friendly.

The unions’ role in Democratic politics is hardly limited to campaign contributions, though money of course matters. But labor also is the dominant player in the party’s ground game, being the only constituency that can mobilize armies of campaign workers to knock on doors and get out the vote. Don’t, moreover, forget the enthusiasm factor. If union members and their families are excited about Democratic candidates, they’ll help the party win the turnout war. If they’re discouraged about the nominee and too many stay home in November, the Democrats’ chances of victory plummet. Moreover, union apathy and its costs can trickle down to state and local-level elections as well – where the Democrat’s recent performance has been abysmal.

The Vice President’s real views on trade policy are hard to discern for several reasons. First, he’s been anything but a model of consistency, supporting some deals and opposing others seemingly with no rhyme of reason. Moreover, there’s often much less to trade votes in the Senate – where he served in Congress – than meets the eye. For decades, after all, large bipartisan Senate majorities have strongly supported the main thrust of American trade policy; the only real opportunities for mandating course changes have been in the House. As a result, Senators who favor politically unpopular trade deals but who fear antagonizing wealthy donors can often have their cake and eat it, too. They can cast No votes and assure their offshoring lobby backers that their favored policies will be approved anyway.

Nonetheless, two clear patterns emerge from reviewing Biden’s trade record since Delaware voters first elected him to the Senate in 1972. (My source is the Cato Institute’s indispensable Congress trade votes database.) He’s been much likelier to oppose the trade policy status quo when Republicans have occupied the White House than under Democratic presidents. And second, not only has he never been a leader in this area. He’s expressed almost no interest in it whatever. That tells me that nothing has been easier for him than to accept the bipartisan inside-the-Beltway consensus that the longer America stays the current, offshoring-friendly trade policy course, the better.

Biden did oppose some high profile trade agreements as a Senator – notably the Central America-Dominican Republic deal of 2005. He also joined most of his colleagues that year in backing unilateral sanctions on China to fight its currency manipulation. In 2007, he supported continuing to ban trucks from Mexico from driving on American highways. And in 2003, over the objections of key American trade partners, he voted to strengthen U.S. requirements that labels on certain food products reveal the country in which they were grown and raised.

But all of those votes took place when George W. Bush was president. And many fell into that aforementioned category of “free votes.” Under his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, Biden’s positions seemed very different. He twice voted to approved extension of Most Favored Nation trade status for China, and in 2000 favored making normal trade treatment for China permanent – which paved the way for Beijing to join the World Trade Organization and triggered a flood of job-, wage-, and growth-destroying Chinese exports (many illegally subsidized) into the U.S. market. Biden also backed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, the Uruguay Round multilateral trade agreement of 1994 that created the World Trade Organization, and fast track negotiating authority for Clinton in 1998.

Biden and his camp could argue that the Vice President has learned and evolved. But the trade policy decisions he endorsed in the 1990s were much more important than those he opposed in the following decade. Moreover, this past spring, he helped the president he serves secure Congressional passage of fast track negotiating authority. That’s bound to boost the odds of TPP’s approval on Capitol Hill.  And he remains a strong supporter of the actual deal even though it suffers most of the main weaknesses of its predecessors. 

Interestingly, Biden’s trade positions might not be a total loser in Democratic primaries, or in the general election if he makes it that far. Several recent polls indicate that Democratic voters have become stronger supporters of current trade policies than the Republican electorate. But Clinton and Sanders aren’t working overtime for union support – and in the former’s case, flip-flopping on the TPP – for nothing. If Biden’s loyalty to President Obama and his own beliefs lead him to champion TPP on the hustings, his best chance for the nomination could boil down to Clinton’s vulnerability to any legal charges stemming from her questionable handling of sensitive national security material on her private email system.

 

 

 

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