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A service for political professionals · Thursday, December 13, 2018 · 471,043,069 Articles · 3+ Million Readers

Trump's 'America First' Trade Talk Gives Democrats A Huge Opportunity to Recapture Workers' Votes

By Joe Rothstein — November 13, 2017

“I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”

This declaration was the most prominent takeaway from Donald Trump’s meeting with Asian leaders at their summit in Vietnam. It’s consistent with a view Trump has had for many years and which encouraged so many working class voters to support him for President.

Trump is wrong so often that our instant reflex is to recoil from anything he says or does. But on trade policy he not only is right on the politics, he has opened many doors of opportunity for Democrats to recapture the Trump vote.

To understand the opportunity, accept the reality that we’re not talking about an either/or choice between “free trade” and “protectionism.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which Trump, along with most union leaders, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and many Democratic members of Congress rejected, had little to do with tariff barriers or pricing. In its 5000+ pages, the TPP focused on intellectual property rights, tech and service industry issues, and regulations over matters as diverse as food safety, health, the environment and work place standards.

For the most part, the TPP was the product of teams of corporate executives and their lawyers, involving few representatives from labor. Until its final release, negotiations took place in secret sessions. Even access to the agreement by members of Congress was limited.

The TPP provided new copyright protections for the tech and entertainment industries but fell short on worker and environmental protections. And it accelerated a process, begun with Nafta, that put corporate interests ahead of national sovereignty.

In the Fall edition of The American Prospect magazine, Robert Kuttner, one of the progressive left’s most influential thinkers and writers, discusses the evolution of U.S. trade policy from one that once led to jobs and prosperity to one that now results in so many plant closings and job losses.

For decades after the end of World War II, says Kuttner, international commerce mirrored U.S. domestic politics, “insisting that capitalism treat workers with minimal decency, accord them some bargaining powers, make room for social investments that markets won’t provide, limit the toll on the environment, and prevent speculative finance from destroying the rest of the economy.”

The policy of managed capital in those decades “left plenty of room for nations to run economies as they liked. There was no international competition to cut taxes, to liberate speculative finance, or to weaken labor standards. In that era, the economy turned in history’s highest sustained rate of economic growth, and the economy also became more equal. With finance well regulated, there were no financial crises. The economy was not protectionist in the sense of discouraging trade, which steadily increased throughout the postwar boom, but leaders were serious about protecting worker rights and living standards.”

But in the 1980s U.S. trade policy began to shift with the growth of U.S. multinationals. The net effect of that shift has been to strip many communities and workers of their livelihoods with few options for replacement. In pulling back from current U.S. trade policy, Trump is acknowledging this and saying the right words. But that’s not the same as doing the right thing. In fact, all of his initiatives seem designed to compound the damage for the very people who voted for him.

That leaves a huge opening for Democrats. The politics of trade should be a slam dunk for Democrats. It goes to the heart of why so many working class voters have rejected the Democrats in recent campaigns. And it fits with what so many unions have been begging Democrats to support.

Proposals to change trade policy can readily be married to changes in our tax code, including an end to incentives that encourage multinationals to send factories and jobs elsewhere, and to keep their profits offshore. What kind of proposals? For one, how about a minimum tax on overseas profits? As an example, by juggling its international books, Boeing, one of the most profitable U.S. companies, paid an average tax of 3 percent between 2002 and 2016.

Taxes are only one factor in corporate decisions on where to locate. A trained local work force, modern infrastructure, a good local educational system, a healthy environment, adequate and reasonably priced power---all are important. Just look at Jeff Bezos’ wish list on where to place a new Amazon headquarters. Since Republicans now are willing to accept trillions of dollars of new debt to pursue a “growth plan” entirely based on corporate tax cuts, Democrats are free to offer their own deficit based alternatives, with much more evidence that these investments would lead to growth.

A “growth plan” alternative that includes serious money for all of the above would give voters a reason to elect Democrats and, according to all polls, be much more welcome than the Republican tax plan which has little popular support.

Persuadable voters want to vote FOR something. Democrats are sorely lacking in the “for” part of that equation. Trump has handed them the opportunity to elevate many of their proposals from the shadows into a single growth plan, centered on Trump’s own “America First,” crusade. It would really be dumb as a trump to let this opportunity slip away.

(Joe Rothstein is a regular columnist for and author of the acclaimed political thriller “The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her.” Mr. Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.