Published: Salon (April 5, 2016)

There is one issue in which Donald Trump is much more progressive than Hillary Clinton – and, unless she learns from history and decisively changes the way Americans perceive her positions here, it may wind up costing her the presidency.

I’m referring, of course, to American trade policy. Although the last president to oppose free trade was Hebert Hoover (and his administration was more than 80 years ago, for those of you keeping track), Trump has been sounding the horn of unapologetic protectionism throughout his presidential campaign. Indeed, opposition to free trade may be the one consistent view Trump has held throughout his public life; when he first mulled a presidential bid in 1988, his main issue was America losing in trade wars with Japan and Kuwait. Twenty-eight years later, Trump’s economic platform focuses on prohibiting American companies from building plants in Mexico, penalizing China for manipulating its currency, and striving to “modify or cancel any business, or trade agreement that hinders American business development, or is shown to create an unfair trading relationship with a foreign entity.” Most notably, he denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which, if signed, would be the largest trade deal in history – calling it a “disaster.”

Ironically, the only other candidate in this election to share Trump’s long history of outspoken protectionism is Sen. Bernie Sanders. Unlike Trump, however, Sanders’ aversion to free trade makes ideological sense. Throughout American history, trade protectionism has been associated with strengthening labor, the traditional prerogative of more left-wing political parties. In speech after speech, Sanders has hammered away at free trade deals for serving the interests of corporations rather than workers. As he put it during a debate with Clinton shortly before his upset victory in the Michigan primary, “You didn’t need a PhD in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.” An overwhelming majority of Americans share this view, with a recent Bloomberg Politics poll discovering that opposition to free trade “unites the country like few others, across lines of politics, race, gender, education, and income.”

This brings us to Clinton’s views on trade, which are problematic to say the least. During her husband’s presidency in the 1990s, Clinton undermined Democratic progressives and worked with congressional Republicans to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Despite being lauded as a “no brainer” at the time, NAFTA was a disaster for the American working class, depleting our nation of almost 700,000 jobs by 2010 and allowing employers to disempower labor unions by threatening to move to Mexico if workers dare to assert their economic rights. As a result, Clinton has taken a more mixed stance on trade issues in the ensuing years, voting against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005 and half-apologizing for NAFTA in 2007 by conceding that “we have to drive a tougher bargain” in the future. Although Clinton supported TPP as Secretary of State, even referring to it as “the gold standard” of trade deals, she has since distanced herself from the agreement on the grounds that it would hurt the middle class.

Considering the massive public backlash against free-trade agreements, Clinton’s current stances may not be enough. According to a recent study by J. Bradford Jensen, Dennis Quinn, and Stephen Weymouth of the National Bureau for Economic Research, voters are more likely to punish candidates they perceive as supporting free-trade agreements due to the demonstrable impact such deals have on their livelihoods. Indeed, when you look back at American history, you will find that it is littered with presidential elections which hinged on trade issues – and, if the past serves as a reliable precedent, a candidate whose position isn’t sufficiently aligned with the perceived public interest usually winds up going down in flames.

Take the 1888 presidential election: In a move that was considered shockingly bold at the time, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the entirety of his 1887 State of the Union message to the subject of tariff reform – i.e., the need to increase free trade in America. At a time when tariff rates had reached unprecedented highs and ordinary Americans were suffering under the yoke of high prices, Cleveland’s surprising decision to make tariff reform a front-and-center issue wound up dominating the subsequent national campaign. In one stroke, the Democrats became the party of tariff reform and the Republicans (led by nominee Benjamin Harrison) became the party of protectionism. While it’s debatable whether America was ultimately pro or anti-free trade at this time – Cleveland narrowly won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College – there is little question that his willingness to boldly declare his stance on this issue allowed the campaign to be waged on his terms, and his terms alone.

If Clinton wants to avoid being bested by Trump in the general election, she would be well-advised to mimic Cleveland’s tactics (albeit not his policies). As many observers have noticed, Trump’s outspoken opposition to free trade has played an integral rolein his presidential candidacy’s success, mobilizing workers to his side while giving him the appearance of an outsider willing to challenge the economic establishment. Although Clinton has spent the past decade gradually shifting her positions to be closer to that of Sanders and Trump, right now Trump is currently in control of the national conversation when it comes to this issue. It seems reasonable to assume that, if Clinton and Trump wind up squaring off against each other in the general election, Trump will attempt to put Clinton on the defensive regarding her pro-free trade past, with the goal being to make her look like a flip-flopper if she takes a protectionist stance or like a tool of special interests if she reverts to her free trade guns.

By delivering a game-changing speech on trade, however, Clinton could preempt such maneuvers. For this to work, she would need to deliver a high-profile address that accomplishes three things:

  1. Unequivocally acknowledge the error of her past free trade policies, most notably NAFTA;
  2. Point to her opposition to CAFTA and refusal to support TPP once it became clear that it would repeat NAFTA’s mistakes;
  3. Point out that liberal Democrats have historically been the main champions for workers’ rights in this country, both on trade policy and other key issues.

By achieving the first goal, Clinton would not only effectively apologize for the harm wrought by NAFTA (which she has already tentatively done in the past), but cast her shifting position as a healthy ability to learn from her mistakes rather than as expedient “flip-flopping.” This point would be reinforced by succeeding in the second goal, which would have the additional benefit of demonstrating that her opposition to trade deals which hurt American workers predates the current presidential campaign. Finally, by tying her protectionist stance to the traditional progressive positions she has adopted – including raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, investing $275 billion in infrastructure to create up to 3 million new jobs, and supporting unions against companies that undermine labor regulations – she would simultaneously underscore how Trump’s anti-free trade stances are more demagogical than ideological and establish her own campaign as the one that truly champions the overall interests of the working class.

Make no mistake about it: It will not be easy for such a speech to be successful. When Cleveland did this almost 130 years ago, it was because he used a platform that guaranteed his words and stances would garner massive media attention. Clinton’s choice of venue and presentation would have to be similarly savvy, and her words would need to not only plant herself squarely on the side of the working class, but do so in such a way that she would be subsequently viewed as the main candidate for workers’ rights vis-à-vis free trade. This will be a tall order for her to fill, and it will be no mean feat if she pulls it off.

At the same time, Clinton pretty much has no choice but to try. Considering the bipartisan opposition to free trade and Trump’s success in fueling his campaign with anti-trade sentiment, Clinton will be an incredibly vulnerable candidate in the general election unless she finds some way of combating Trump on these grounds. While she seems generally aware of the fact that her past on trade policy could hurt her, there is little indication that she recognizes the gravity of the situation in which she finds herself. If she doesn’t pick up on this soon, she risks failing to implement adequate damage control until it’s too late.