What the Candidates Are Saying About Free Trade in the Debates


Below are all the cases during the presidential debates so far in which candidates have mentioned free trade as an issue. (I’ve edited a little for clarity, as raw transcripts of live debates contain a lot of verbal clutter.)

[Ian Fletcher| February, 15 2016 |Huffington Post]

As you’ll see, this issue has boiled somewhat hotter on the Republican side, though this is partly just because the Republicans have had more debates, the Democratic National Committee having limited the number on their side. 

The biggest surprise is that Gov. John Kasich of Ohio (“I’ll allow putting that tariff or whatever,” January 14) is the number-two fair trader on the Republican side. Ohio, of course, is an industrial state, wounded by free trade, that has been protectionist since President McKinley’s day. Don’t get excited, though: Kasich’s remarks were mild and there’s no way of judging the sincerity of even his slight acceptance of the possibility of a tariff under some circumstances. 

Let’s look at the Democrats first.

October 13, 2015 Democratic Debate (source):

MODERATOR: You supported [Obama’s] trade deal dozens of times. You even called it the “gold standard.” Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it. Will you say anything to get elected?

SEC. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, actually, I have been very consistent… I did say, when I was secretary of state, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard. It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards. My standards are for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans. And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, “this will help raise your wages.” And I concluded I could not.

MODERATOR: Senator Sanders, let’s talk about income inequality…What are you going to be able to do that President Obama didn’t?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The truth is that for the last 40 years, the great middle class of this country has been disappearing. And in my view, what we need to do is create millions of jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure; raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour; pay equity for women workers; and our disastrous trade policies, which have cost us millions of jobs; and make every public college and university in this country tuition-free… I go around the country, talk to a whole lot of people. The middle class in this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. 

November 16, 2015 Democratic Debate:
Nobody said anything about trade.

December 19, 2015 Democratic Debate:
Nobody said anything about trade.

January 17, 2016 Democratic Debate:
Nobody said anything about trade.

February 11, 2016 Democratic Debate (source):

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The wages that high school graduates receive today are significantly less, whether you are white or black, than they used to be. Why is that? Because of a series of disastrous trade policies which have allowed corporate America through NAFTA and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, Secretary Clinton and I disagree on those issues. But my view is those trade policies have enabled corporate America to shut down in this country, throw millions of people out on the street. 

Now no one thinks that working in the factory is the greatest job in the world. But you know what, you can make a middle class wage, you have decent health care, decent benefits. You once had a pension. Those jobs, in many cases, are now gone. They’re off to China. Now you are a worker, white worker, black worker, who had a decent job, that manufacturing job is gone. What have you got now? You are working at McDonald’s.

Now let’s look at the Republicans.

August 6, 2015 Republican Debate (source):

DONALD TRUMP: This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.

September 16, 2015 Republican Debate (source):

DONALD TRUMP: I’ve made billions and billions of dollars dealing with people all over the world, and I want to put whatever that talent is to work for this country so we have great trade deals, make our country rich again, make it great again. 

October 28, 2015 Republican Debate (source)

DONALD TRUMP: And Mexico’s going to pay for the wall because Mexico – I love the Mexican people, I respect the Mexican leaders – but the leaders are much sharper, smarter and more cunning than our leaders. And just to finish, people say, how will you get Mexico to pay? A politician other than the people in the states – a politician cannot get them to pay. I can. We lose, we have a trade imbalance… Our country doesn’t win anymore. We used to win, we don’t win anymore. We lose on trade. We lose with ISIS. 

November 11, 2015 Republican Debate (source)

MODERATOR: The U.S. just concluded an international trade agreement with 11 countries in the Pacific. You’ve said that you’d rather have no deal.

DONALD TRUMP: Yeah. It’s a horrible deal.

MODERATOR: Most economists say that trade is boosted growth, and every single post-war president has supported the expansion of international trade, including the last three Republican presidents. Why would you reverse more than 50 years of U.S. trade policy?

DONALD TRUMP: The TPP is a horrible deal. It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door, and totally take advantage of everyone. It’s 5,600 pages long. So complex that nobody read it. It’s like Obamacare: nobody ever read it. They passed it; nobody read it. And look at mess we have right now. And it will be repealed.

This is one of the worst trade deals. And I would, yes, rather not have it. With all of these countries, and all of the bad ones getting advantage and taking advantage of what the good ones would normally get, I’d rather make individual deals with individual countries. We will do much better. We lose a fortune on trade. The United States loses with everybody. We’re losing now over $500 billion in terms of imbalance with China, $75 billion a year imbalance with Japan. By the way, Mexico, $50 billion a year imbalance. So I must say, Gerard, I just think it’s a terrible deal. 

I love trade. I’m a free trader, 100%. But we need smart people making the deals, and we don’t have smart people making the deals.

MODERATOR: The deal, as you say, the terms of the deal were published just last week: 5,000 pages of it, and 80 percent of U.S. trade with countries in the Pacific, these countries, these 11 countries, is actually tariff-free. And the trade deal only affects the other 20 percent. Which are the particular parts of the deal that you think were badly negotiated?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, currency manipulation they don’t discuss in the agreement, which is a disaster. If you look at the way China and India and almost everybody takes advantage of the United States. China in particular, because they’re so good – it’s the number-one abuser of this country. And if you look at the way they take advantage, it’s through currency manipulation. It’s not even discussed in the almost-6,000-page agreement. And, as you understand very well from the Wall Street Journal, currency manipulation is the single great weapon people have. They don’t even discuss it in this agreement. So I say, it’s a very bad deal, should not be approved. If it is approved, it will just be more bad trade deals, more loss of jobs for our country. We are losing jobs like nobody’s ever lost jobs before. I want to bring jobs back into this country.

MODERATOR: But isn’t that part of the problem? When I say, Senator, that if this deal is not ratified by the U.S., by the Senate, then it would actually give China an opportunity to grow its economic leadership, which it’s been seeking to do? And if the U.S. is unable to take part in this trade deal with these countries in Asia, will China take the lead?

SEN. RAND PAUL: There is an argument that China doesn’t like the deal, because in us doing the deal, we’ll be trading with their competitors. You’re exactly right. But I think we’ve sort of missed the point a little bit here. There is an important point, though, about how we discuss these trade treaties that I do agree with Mr. Trump on. We should negotiate from a position of strength. 

And we also should negotiate using the full force and the Constitutional power that was given to us. I think it’s a mistake that we gave up power to the presidency on these trade deals. We gave up the power to filibuster, and I’m kind of fond of that power. We gave up the power to amend. And I think, really, one of the big problems we have in our country is, over the last century, so much power has gravitated to the executive branch. Really, Congress is kind of a bystander. We don’t write the rules. We don’t make the laws. The executive branch does. So even in trade — and I am for trade — I think we should be careful about giving so much power to the presidency.

GOV. JOHN KASICH: And in the trade agreement, the TPP, it’s critical to us, not only for economic reasons and for jobs, because there are so many people who are connected to getting jobs because of trade, but it allows us to create not only economic alliances, but also potentially strategic alliances against the Chinese. They are not our enemy, but they are certainly not our friend.

GOV. JEB BUSH: My worry is that the real economy has been hurt by the vast overreach of the Obama administration. And Hillary Clinton, she wants to double down on that. She wants to create even more. She is a captive of the left of her party to the point now where she was for the trade agreement, the Pacific agreement, but now she’s against it. She was – hinted she was -for the XL pipeline. Now she’s opposed to it. All the things that would create sustained economic growth, she’s now doubling down against.

December 15, 2016 Republican Debate (source):

DONALD TRUMP: I began this journey six months ago. My total focus was on building up our military, building up our strength, building up our borders, making sure that China, Japan, Mexico, both at the border and in trade, no longer takes advantage of our country…Our country doesn’t win anymore. We don’t win on trade. We don’t win on the military. We can’t defeat ISIS. 

CARLY FIORINA: China is a rising adversary. So one of the things we have to do if we want China’s support is to push back on China. They, too, recognize one thing: strength and their own economic interest. I have done business in China for 25 years, so I know that in order to get China to cooperate with us, we must first actually retaliate against their cyber-attacks so they know we’re serious. We have to push back on their desire to control the trade route through the South China Sea, through which flows $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year.

January 14, 2016 Republican Debate (source):

DONALD TRUMP: China is ripping us on trade. They’re devaluing their currency and they’re killing our companies. Thousands of thousands. You look at the number of companies and the number in terms of manufacturing of plans that we’ve lost: 50,000 because of China.

We’ve lost anywhere between four and seven million jobs because of China. What I said then was, “We have very unfair trade with China. We’re going to have a trade deficit of $505 billion this year with China.” A lot of that is because they devalue their currency. What I said to the New York Times is, “We have great power, economic power over China and if we wanted to use that and the amount, where the 45 percent comes in, that would be the amount they saw their devaluations that we should get.”

What I’m saying is this: I’m saying that if they don’t start treating us fairly and stop devaluing and let their currency rise, so that our companies can compete and we don’t lose all these millions of jobs that we’re losing, I would certainly start taxing goods that come in from China. Who the hell has to lose $505 billion a year? 

I have many friends that deal with China. When they order the product and when they finally get it, the product it is taxed. If you look at what happened with Boeing and if you look at what happened with so many companies, we don’t have an equal playing field. I’m saying, absolutely, we don’t have to continue to lose $505 billion as a trade deficit for the privilege of dealing with China.

I’m a free trader. I believe in it, but we have to be smart and we have to use smart people to negotiate. I have the largest bank in the world as a tenant of mine. I love China. I love the Chinese people. But they laugh, they can’t believe how stupid the American leadership is. I’m totally open to a tariff if they don’t treat us fairly. Hey, their whole trade is tariffed. They do it to us, we don’t do it to them. It’s not fair trade.

GOV. JOHN KASICH: I’m a free trader. I support NAFTA. I believe in the TPP because it’s important those countries in Asia are interfacing against China. And we do need China – Donald’s right about North Korea. I mean the fact is, they need to put the pressure on and frankly, we need to intercept ships coming out of North Korea so they don’t proliferate all these dangerous materials. 

But what Donald’s touching on, I think has merit. And I’ll allow putting that tariff or whatever he’s saying here. For too long, what happens is somebody dumps their product in our country and take our people’s jobs, and then we go to an international court and it takes them like a year or two to figure out whether they were cheating us. And guess what? The worker’s out of a job. So when they found against that country that’s selling products here lower than the cost it takes to produce them, then what do we tell the worker? “Oh, well, you know, it just didn’t work out for you?”

I think we should be for free trade but I think fair trade. And when countries violate trade agreements or dump product in this country, we need to stand up against those countries that do that without making them into an enemy.

How do I know this? Because so many people in my family worked in steel mills, and they didn’t work in a white collar, they worked in a blue collar. And the fact is those jobs are critical, they’re hard working members of the middle class and they need to be paid attention to because they’re Americans and they carry the load. So let’s demand open trade but fair trade in this country. That’s what I think we need to do.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: But on this point, if I may add something on this point. We are all frustrated with what China is doing. I think we need to be very careful with tariffs, and here’s why. China doesn’t pay the tariff, the buyer pays the tariff. If you send a tie or a shirt made in China into the United States and an American goes to buy it at the store and there’s a tariff on it, it gets passed on in the price to price to the consumer. So I think the better approach, the best thing we can do to protect ourselves against China economically is to make our economy stronger, which means reversing course from all the damage Barack Obama is doing to this economy, which begins with tax reform. 

DONALD TRUMP: You absolutely have to get involved with China, they are taking so much of what we have in terms of jobs in terms of money. We just can’t do it any longer.

MODERATOR: He is right. If you put a tariff on a good, it’s Americans who pay.

GOV. JEB BUSH: Absolutely.

DONALD TRUMP: You looking at me?


DONALD TRUMP: Can I tell you what? It will never happen because they’ll let their currency go up. They’re never going to let it happen. Japan, the same thing. They are devaluing… Komatsu is a tractor company in Japan. Friends of mine are ordering Komatsu tractors now because they’ve devalued the yen to such an extent that you can’t buy a Caterpillar tractor. And we’re letting them get away with it. And we can’t let them get away with it. And that’s why we have to use Carl [Icahn] and we have to use our great businesspeople and not political hacks to negotiate with these guys.

GOV. JEB BUSH: Apart from the higher prices on consumers and people who are living paycheck to paycheck, apart from that, there will be retaliation.


GOV. JEB BUSH: So soybean sales from Iowa, entire soybean production goes – the equivalent of it – goes to China. Or how about Boeing, right here within a mile? Do you think that the Chinese, if they had a 45% tariff imposed on all their imports, wouldn’t retaliate and start buying Airbus? Of course they would. This would be devastating for the economy. We need someone with a steady hand being president of the United States.

DONALD TRUMP: And we don’t need a weak person being president of the United State, OK? Because that’s what we’d get if it were Jeb – I tell you what, we don’t need that. That’s essentially what we have now, and we don’t need that. And that’s why we’re in the trouble that we’re in now. And by the way, Jeb you mentioned Boeing, take a look. They order planes, they make Boeing build their plant in China. They don’t want them made here. They want those planes made in China.

GOV. JEB BUSH: They’re a mile away from here.

DONALD TRUMP: That’s not the way the game is supposed to be played.

GOV JEB BUSH: The simple fact is that the plane that’s being built here is being sold to China. You flew in with your 767, didn’t you? Right there, right next to the plant.

DONALD TRUMP: No, the new planes. I’m not talking about now, I’m talking about in the future. They’re building massive plants in China because China does not want Boeing building their planes here, they want them built in China, because China happens to be smart the way they do it, not the way we do it.

SEN. TED CRUZ: Both Donald and Jeb have good points, and there is a middle ground. Donald is right that China is running over President Obama like he is a child. President Obama is not protecting American workers, and we are getting hammered… You know, I sat down with the senior leadership of John Deere. They discussed how hard it is to sell tractors in China, because all the regulatory barriers. They’re protectionist. But Jeb is also right that, if we just impose a tariff, they’ll put reciprocal tariffs, which will hurt Iowa farmers and South Carolina producers and the 20% of American jobs that depend on exports.

So the way you do it is you pass a tax plan like the tax plan I’ve introduced: a simple flat tax, 10% for individuals, and a 16% business flat tax, you abolish the IRS… The business flat tax enables us to abolish the corporate income tax, the death tax, the Obamacare taxes, the payroll taxes. And they’re border-adjustable, so every export pays no taxes whatsoever. It’s tax-free – a huge advantage for our farmers and ranchers and manufacturers – and every import pays the 16% business flat tax. It’s like a tariff, but here’s the difference: if we impose a tariff, China responds.

January 28, 2016 Republican Debate:
Nobody said anything about trade.

February 6, 2016 Republican Debate (source):

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I will tell you, I will bring jobs back from China. I will bring jobs back from Japan. I will bring jobs back from Mexico – where New Hampshire, by the way, has been virtually wiped out. They’ve lost so many businesses going to Mexico because of horrible trade deals. And now we’re about to sign another trade deal, TPP, which is going to be a disaster for this country because they don’t talk about monetary manipulation. It is going to be a disaster.

I’m going to bring jobs back and I’ll start bringing them back very fast. Under my tax plan – right now, we’re the highest taxed country in the world – under my plan, we cut not only taxes for the middle class, but we cut taxes for corporations. We will bring back trillions of dollars that’s offshore. Right now, they have $2.5 trillion, and in my opinion, it’s much more than that. That’s what the government says. All of that money is going to come back. And we’re not going to lose Pfizer, which is now leaving, and other great companies, which are now leaving. We have many, many companies that are leaving this country. We’re not going to lose them anymore because we’re going to have a tax structure that is going to keep them in our country…

Our country that we love so much doesn’t win anymore. We don’t win with the military, we don’t win on the border. You look at New Hampshire, with the tremendous problem we have with heroin. Number one thing I hear from the people of New Hampshire, who I love, and developed such relationships with: we don’t win with healthcare. We don’t win with trade. You look at what other countries are doing to us. China. Everyone, they’re killing us on trade. If I’m elected president, we will win, and we will win, and we will win.

February 13, 2016 Republican Debate (source):

MODERATOR: I was with you in Pendleton, South Carolina earlier this week at the Rodeo Arena. You promised the crowd, and they rose to their feet, that if Ford or a company like were to move a factory to Mexico, you would try to stop it or threaten them with a 35% tax or tariff on every car sold. So my question is, based on your understanding of the presidency, where do you derive that power? Would you need the consent of Congress to go along? And do you see the presidency as a perch from which you can cajole and/or threaten private industry to do something you think is better for the U.S. economy?

DONALD TRUMP: I would build consensus with Congress, and Congress would agree with me. I’ll give you an example because I don’t like the idea of using executive orders like our president. It is a disaster what he’s doing. I would build consensus, but consensus means you have to work hard. You have to cajole. You have to get them into the Oval Office and get them all together, and you have to make deals.

I mentioned before that a big Chinese company bought the Chicago Exchange. Carrier is moving to Mexico. Well, I would go to Carrier and I would say I am going to work awfully hard. You’re going to make air conditioners now in Mexico. You’re going to get all of these 1,400 people that are being laid off: they were crying; it was a very sad situation. You’re going to make air conditioners in Mexico, you’re going to put them across our border with no tax? I’m going to tell them, I am going to get consensus from Congress and we’re going to tax you when those air conditioners come in. So stay where you are or build in the United States, because we are killing ourselves with trade pacts that are no good for us and no good for our workers.


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