Will the Liberal Hillary Clinton Please Stand Up?

Last Sunday's debate showcased attempts by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to outdo one another in their commitments to winning at trade, and punishing China for its inadvertent subsidisation of the American construction industry.

The universal acceptance of trade as a zero-sum game was both unexpected, and difficult to stomach. While Trump has promoted protectionism since the 1980s, fearful back then of unchecked Japanese growth, Clinton has long championed trade liberalisation. She supported NAFTA as both First Lady and Senator, contending that “everybody is in favour of free and fair trade. I think NAFTA is proving its worth," and later deeming the Trans Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” of trade deals. 

In a reversal of her earlier positions, Clinton has publicly embraced protectionism during her current presidential campaign, disavowing past support for TPP and NAFTA. During Sunday’s debate, she announced her intent to empower a trade prosecutor to hold China accountable for “illegally dumping steel in the United States” and “putting steelworkers and American steel plants out of business”. While this commitment would seem to put her squarely at odds with her past beliefs, recently leaked excepts from private speeches given to bank executives call her commitment to protectionism into question. 

Addressing the Brazilian Banco Itaú, Clinton expressed her desire for “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders”, and went on to describe the tremendous effort and cooperation required to advance pro-trade policy. Another leaked email, written by campaign pollster Joel Benenson, evidences that Clinton’s decision to oppose TTP was motivated by political, rather than ideological, concerns. Benenson writes; “I accept the position we’re taking but she has generally been more pro-trade than anti and we get (sic) we need politically by opposing this”.

Her public positions are therefore a far cry from those she’s willing to support with friends in the privacy of her living room. While John Cassidy, writing for the New Yorker, describes Clinton’s revealed positions as those of a “hard-headed centrist”, they are effectively neoliberal; removing restrictions on the international exchange of goods and services helps the global poor while providing for the more efficient use of scarce resources. 

During a speech in Cincinnati, Clinton reiterated the protectionist themes presented in her debate speech, telling supporters she would “say no to bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and unfair trade practices like when China dumps cheap steel in our markets”. Leaving aside the fact that anti-dumping laws harm consumers far more than they help producers, or that WTO dispute panels have judged current duties to be illegally anticompetitive, Clinton’s stated opposition to free trade is electorally unsustainable in the long term. 

While Trump may have been able to attract support by getting on TV and letting loose on foreign competition and trade deficits, Hillary can’t. She is supported by a coalition of beneficiaries of trade and immigration. While Podesta’s emails draw focus to the financial sector’s membership in this group, they are hardly the only pro-globalization group upon which Hillary relies. The tech sector requires a steady supply of highly skilled foreign workers, and while republican voters increasingly support protectionism, support for free trade among rank-and-file democrats has increased from sixty to seventy-four percent over the past decade.
While most democrats believe that globalization reduces domestic job security, they consider this an acceptable price to pay for increased standards of living, politicians don’t need to sugarcoat the tradeoffs at all.

Even Bernie Sanders’ supporters expressed skepticism at his claim that open borders were “a Koch brothers plot”. Just imitating conservative protectionism will bring diminishing returns as the gap between democrat and republican support of free trade continues to widen, and tariff-happy democratic politicians may find themselves facing primary challenges from free-traders unencumbered by Trump’s regressive social views. Hillary Clinton has expressed continuing private support for free trade, coming out about her beliefs will bring her in line with the majority of her supporters, and push her party toward a sustainable future.