The closest thing to a shout-out to trade policy came from Sen. Bernie Sanders — the sixth and final candidate to speak — who asserted he would “stand up for workers abroad” and “stand up for workers in the United States of America.”
It’s par for the course in the Democratic primary. If the presidential contenders say anything at all about trade policy, it’s typically criticism of Trump’s go-it-alone approach in fighting China, a passing acknowledgment that farmers are hurting from the president’s approach or a caution that the replacement deal for NAFTA needs to be strongly enforceable.
They aren’t even tackling the issue in their broader messaging. Out of the dozens of television ads Democrats have taken out in Iowa, not a single one has focused on trade.
Trump, meanwhile, has made trade a central focus of his presidency. The self-styled “Tariff Man” characterizes his fight against China as a wildly successful move that has crippled its economy, and lauded his own efforts to fix the long-criticized trade deal with Mexico and Canada as huge accomplishments enabled by his deal-making savvy.
Just this week the president, who argues his confrontational approach is ending “the war on American workers,” announced a preliminary trade deal with China. And his administration landed a deal with House Democrats to replace the 25-year-old NAFTA.
The Democratic field has been noticeably quiet on both issues here, leading some Iowa Democrats to worry it could cost the party here and in the battleground states they hope to claw back from Trump in 2020.
“It’s certainly a missed opportunity,” Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Democrats, said.
“I think trade is the area to show you care about what’s hurting rural voters. But now with the caucus less than two months away, you could say the cake is already in the oven,” Bagniewski added. “It’s a little too late.”
Trump has imposed tariffs on more than $360 billion worth of Chinese goods, a move that resulted in harsh retaliation from Beijing, particularly on U.S. agricultural products like soybeans and pork. The pain has been felt acutely in Iowa, the nation’s number one pork producing state and second-leading soybean producer.
Iowans are quick to acknowledge that sales are down and farm communities — from farmers to equipment manufacturers to the banks they put their money in — are struggling due to Trump’s actions.
But in countless trips to Iowa by 2020 Democrats, they aren’t spending much time talking in depth about an issue that’s essential to the health of the state economy.
“We’d expect them to speak up more,” said Quentin Hart, mayor of Waterloo, Iowa.
Democrats at the local level, ranging from state and county leaders to Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, have made trade a more central issue because they know Iowans are hurting, Hart said.
“It’s particularly important in places like Waterloo, but it hasn’t been a main leading point in these conversations,” Hart said recently after his city hosted a presidential forum attended by five candidates, none of whom mentioned trade policy.
At the Iowa Farmers Union annual meeting in Grinnell in early December, it was a similar story: Democrats made quick references to Trump’s trade wars, without offering much detail on what their approach on trade would be.
“Donald Trump is treating farmers like poker chips in one of his bankrupt casinos,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said to an audience of more than 100 farmers and agricultural industry members.
Klobuchar is often credited on Capitol Hill as one of the most trade-savvy lawmakers given that she represents Minnesota, a farm state that largely relies on trade, particularly with Canada, its neighbor to the north. Klobuchar is also a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, where she has been vocal in pressing the Trump administration to expand U.S. exports abroad.
Still, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the only major candidate to roll out a comprehensive trade plan, which in some ways more closely resembles Trump’s agenda than Barack Obama’s. Her plan would overhaul how Democratic administrations have handled trade in the past and create a list of nine separate criteria a country would have to meet before negotiating a trade deal with the U.S
“For decades, big multinational corporations have bought and lobbied their way into dictating America’s trade policy,” Warren wrote, calling the policies across Republican and Democratic administrations a “failed trade agenda.”
But after announcing her vision days before the July Democratic debate in Detroit, Warren rarely makes reference to her grand plan for trade.
“It would be a good thing for her to emphasize more,” said Jeff Link, a longtime Iowa-based Democratic strategist.
Link pointed out that trade policy is coming up a lot more in congressional races, such as in Iowa’s 4th District where Democrat J.D. Scholten is running for Rep. Steve King’s seat. But he noted that stems from Scholten’s ability to travel to towns with less than 1,000 people and really “pick up a lot of material on trade from speaking to small towns.”
Some Iowa Democrats believe candidates are steering clear from talking about trade because it’s a complicated subject and they don’t want a blunder on the campaign trail to get amplified on social media. (Trump, by contrast, never shies from talking about trade at rallies.)
“There’s a palpable fear of saying something wrong,” Bagniewski said.
Democratic strategists argue that it’s likely trade policy will loom larger once the crowded field of candidates shrinks and the prospect of confronting Trump directly draws nearer.
Link observed that Buttigieg has more recently weaved trade into his stump speech in Iowa – a move that comes as he has surged in the polls in the Hawkeye state.
“It’s an unavoidable issue because it’s a signature issue for Trump,” said Bill Reinsch, a former Clinton administration official and trade expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re going to have to deal with it, and they would be smart to practice in Iowa, but guess not.”
Maya King contributed to this report.