NEW YORK – A President Bernie Sanders would consider imposing tariffs on Chinese goods as part of a fair trade agenda, even if it ends up costing American consumers more money, the Democratic presidential candidate told The Buffalo News in an interview last week.
Meantime, the Democratic front-runner – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – also promised a far tougher approach on trade in an interview Sunday, saying she can envision enforcement actions against the Chinese and duties on Chinese products as a last resort.
The News requested interviews with the candidates focusing on economic issues that would matter most to residents of Western New York, a region battered for years by job losses sometimes tied to international trade deals.
The interviews revealed two candidates saying similar things but talking in far different ways.
Sanders was blunt in his criticism of trade deals and in his support for solar energy and a $1 trillion infrastructure program, but the Vermont senator rarely offered details beyond the talking points he delivers in his campaign trail stump speech.
Clinton, in contrast, offered nuanced and detailed answers, offering specific complaints about trade with China and the North American Free Trade Agreement – even though she has supported free trade in the past – as well as her more ambitious solar energy proposal and her much smaller infrastructure plan.
Sanders spoke with The News for about 10 minutes before his appearance at the University at Buffalo last Monday, promising a total makeover in America’s approach to trade.
“It is not acceptable that companies shut down, move to China, pay people there a fraction of the wages they paid in the United States and then they bring their products back,” Sanders said. “So I think it is clear to me that we need a new approach to trade that demands that corporate America start investing here, not just in low-wage countries.”
Asked if that new approach would include tariffs on Chinese goods, Sanders said: “I think tariffs are something that have existed in this country for many, many years.”
And when asked whether tariffs would be worthwhile even if they increased the cost of consumer goods – which is just what economists say would result – Sanders said: “I think so.”
Sanders offered no details, though, as to when he would be willing to impose duties on Chinese imports.
Asked whether he had thought about what his tariff scenario would look like, Sanders said: “No. All I will tell you is that the status quo, what exists today, is not acceptable. And the proof is in the pudding in that we have lost millions of decent paying jobs as a result of these trade policies.”
In contrast, Clinton – who supported China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization when she first ran for the U.S. Senate from New York in 2000 – talked about duties on Chinese goods as a possible last resort.
“Look, I think that it’s clear that China has not competed fairly in the global marketplace and there has to be a stricter, more effective approach toward dealing with China,” Clinton said in what was scheduled to be a 10-minute telephone interview, but that stretched to nearly 20 minutes largely because of the detail in her answers.
She said she would be more aggressive in pursuing enforcement cases under the World Trade Organization if China were found to be violating fair trade principles.
“I would not need to be asked; if I were president I would be much more on the offense and aggressive in enforcing the rules we already have,” she said.
If the WTO enforcement process took too long or proved ineffective, Clinton said, she would be willing to consider harsher actions.
“So imposing duties, preventing the unloading or the importing of goods while a dispute is being carried out, I think would be appropriate way to respond,” she said.
Regarding NAFTA – the free trade deal with Canada and Mexico that was a signature accomplishment of Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton – Sanders again painted with a broad brush while Clinton offered tiny brush strokes.
Asked what could be done about NAFTA, Sanders said: “We can renegotiate it. And I think the same with other trade agreements. And it’s not just Buffalo. Over the last 30 or so years we have lost millions of decent-paying jobs. Since 2001 some 60,000 factories in this country have closed down. Not all of it is attributable to trade, but a lot of it is. And I know the devastation that free trade has caused Buffalo.”
When asked what he would be demanding from Mexico in the renegotiation, Sanders replied: “What would I be demanding? What we are looking at is fair trade, not free trade. It is not fair trade when American workers have to compete against people who, for example, in Vietnam make 65 cents an hour minimum wage. That’s not fair. … So I will not support trade agreements that force American workers to compete against people who make pennies an hour, against countries where there are no environmental standards and in some cases where unions are not allowed.”
Clinton also said she wants to renegotiate NAFTA, but she offered more specifics as to how she would like the see the trade deal changed.
“I would strengthen NAFTA’s labor and environmental provisions,” she said. “I would change NAFTA’s dispute settlement provisions so they don’t give special rights to foreign companies to challenge our laws on labor, environmental and health issues, particularly. I would strengthen NAFTA’s enforcement mechanism to ensure strict compliance with the agreement. … And I would review NAFTA regularly and inject that regular review into the agreement to ensure that our workers and communities are actually benefiting.”
In 2008, then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA when he was running for president but did not make good on that promise a few months into his first term.
“The president has said we will look at all of our options, but I think they can be addressed without having to reopen the agreement,” Ronald Kirk, the United States trade representative,” said in April 2009.
Just as she has changed her views on NAFTA over the years, Clinton has also come to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal recently finalized by the Obama administration that Clinton spoke fondly of when she was secretary of state.
Clinton’s shifting stance stands in contrast to that of Sanders, who has been steadfastly against the trade deal known as the TPP just as he was against NAFTA in the early 1990s.
Asked why she had come to oppose the TPP, Clinton offered a list of reasons, saying its dispute settlement provisions and enforcement mechanisms weren’t strong enough, and that the “rules of origin” provisions – which aim to prevent countries in the deal from exploiting cheap labor elsewhere – were too weak, as well.
While Sanders and Clinton have clashed on the campaign trail about the financial ties he alleges she has to the oil and gas industry, there was little disagreement between them in the interviews over their support for green energy initiatives.
Asked whether he had raised those supposed financial ties because he thinks they might denude Clinton’s support for green energy, Sanders said: “No, I think she is sincere – unlike Republicans, she actually understands that climate change is real and that we have to transform our energy system.”
Sanders and Clinton both heaped praise on the new SolarCity project in Buffalo, saying such endeavors could be part of the green energy future they both envision.
At the same time, though, the candidates offer different platforms for pushing the country toward the use of solar and other renewable energy sources.
Sanders noted that he has proposed legislation that
offers $200 million in loans and grants to offset the costs for solar panels for community facilities, public housing and the homes of low-income families.
“We have introduced legislation that calls for 10 million solar rooftops,” he said. “Ten million. And the way to do that is to make sure that low- and moderate-income people can get the capital they need to put solar on their rooftops and pay off those loans by reduced electric bills.”
Clinton, meanwhile, has outlined a much more ambitious goal: the installation of a half billion solar panels during her first term. She would accomplish that, in part, through a $60 billion “Clean Energy Challenge” in which the federal government would partner with states, cities and other communities to give them the resources they need to launch solar energy projects and energy-efficiency initiatives.
“I’m going to do everything I can to encourage the construction of manufacturing facilities that are necessary (to meet her solar energy goal),” Clinton said.
Sanders, however, offers a much larger public works program than Clinton does, proposing a $1 trillion infrastructure investment program. Clinton, in contrast, proposes $275 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure.
Sanders would fund his program by closing tax loopholes that currently allow corporations to shelter money overseas.
Clinton said she offered a smaller infrastructure program because doing so is more pragmatic.