Analysis

How Trump Stole the Democrats’ Best 2020 Foreign-Policy Stances

From trade to troop drawdowns, some Dem presidential contenders may have a hard time contrasting their views with the president’s.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Aug. 15, 2015. (Jason Davis/Getty Images)
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Aug. 15, 2015. (Jason Davis/Getty Images)

Like U.S. President Donald Trump, Joe Biden once wanted to get the United States out of Afghanistan as fast as possible—or at least to dramatically scale down the U.S. presence there. Indeed, back in 2009 it was one of the few arguments that Biden, then a freshly minted vice president, lost with his boss, President Barack Obama. In internal discussions Biden argued forcefully against Obama’s troop surge and in favor of a pared-down approach to Afghanistan that no doubt would have gratified Trump’s isolationist instincts 10 years later. Biden wanted to discard Washington’s costly, troop-intensive counterinsurgency policy and its pretensions of democratic transformation, admit that the Afghan government was all but useless, and focus mainly on killing terrorists with special operations and drones. His approach even had a name: the “Biden Plan.”

So if Biden is eventually nominated by the Democratic Party to run against Trump in 2020, it’s not going to be all that easy for him to differentiate himself from the incumbent. That’s because Trump has already called, Biden Plan-style, for halving U.S. troops in Afghanistan and is currently negotiating intensively with the Taliban over an American withdrawal—another approach long supported by Biden, who back in 2011 declared controversially that the Taliban “is not our enemy” and reconciliation was possible.

And here’s the problem for the Democrats as the 2020 race begins: Biden, of all the party’s potential nominees, may have the most differences with Trump on foreign policy. Other contenders could well have even more trouble distinguishing themselves from the president, especially if the Democratic Party is prodded by its progressive wing into trade protectionism and the populist arena dominated by Trump since 2016.

Biden, at least, is a free trader. But Trump has already co-opted part of the agenda of leading Democratic progressives who are also contemplating a 2020 challenge. Most prominent among them: Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who have often taken a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to criticizing Trump’s trade wars. Their common refrain: We don’t like NAFTA and other big multilateral trade agreements either, but we’d do it better than Trump. And in the coming campaign, they will have to make the case that they don’t disagree with the incumbent on fundamentals, only on methods.

Moreover, on the issue of U.S. deployments overseas, it’s hard to find Democrats who will stake their campaigns on defending what are perceived to be unwinnable wars in places such as Afghanistan or Syria.

Consider the case of Warren, the Massachusetts senator who was the first top-tier Democrat to announce an exploratory committee for a 2020 bid. In recent months she has forthrightly endorsed both tariffs and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. “I think it is right to get our troops out of Syria—and let me add, I think it’s right to get our troops out of Afghanistan,” Warren told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow earlier this month. “I think that everybody who keeps saying, ‘No, no, no, we can’t do that,’ in the defense establishment needs to explain what they think winning in those wars [looks] like and where the metrics are.”

And on Oct. 10 of last year, Warren tweeted: “We went to Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda – instead we have become deeply involved in a civil war that no amount of American military willpower, elbow grease, or ingenuity will bring to an end.”

It’s an observation that almost could have come from the Twitter feed of @realDonaldTrump.

On trade, Warren has tried to distinguish herself from Trump by criticizing him from the left—it’s not that he was wrong in deriding NAFTA and liberally deploying tariffs, she has said, it’s the way he did so. “There’s no question we need to renegotiate NAFTA,” she said in her defining foreign-policy speech last November. But Trump’s new deal—the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement—didn’t address the problems inherent in the old deal, Warren suggested. “As it’s currently written, Trump’s deal won’t stop the serious and ongoing harm NAFTA causes for American workers—it won’t stop outsourcing, it won’t raise wages, and it won’t create jobs,” she said in her speech. “It’s NAFTA 2.0.” (Trump has made the case that the new agreement will restore U.S. industrial jobs, though the pact hasn’t yet been debated in the Senate.)

But when the president began talking about imposing tariffs nearly a year ago, Warren found herself in the odd position of defending him, even as Republican senators were expressing misgivings over his broadsides against the free trade policies that have become conventional wisdom in both political parties. “When President Trump says he’s putting tariffs on the table, I think tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy overall,” Warren told CNN’s State of the Union.

Warren’s best hope, perhaps, is that she can distinguish herself from Trump by targeting the wealthy in her populist rhetoric—an approach that the president and his well-heeled administration have helped along by affecting a cavalier attitude toward the less fortunate, especially during the recent government shutdown.

“For decades, the leaders of both parties preached the gospel that free trade was a rising tide that would lift all boats. Great rhetoric, except that the trade deals they negotiated mainly lifted the yachts—and threw millions of working Americans overboard to drown,” Warren said last November. She plans to propose a “wealth tax” and has already sponsored a most un-Trump-like “Accountable Capitalism Act” that would give workers a place on corporate boards and redistribute profits from executives and shareholders to the middle class. Warren has also called for serious antitrust enforcement and a crackdown on tax havens. Moreover, she has laid out “three core nuclear security principles” that clash with Trump’s bid for an arms race: no new nuclear weapons, more arms control, and no first use.

Sanders is likely to have even more trouble distinguishing himself from Trump on some issues. The senator, after all, was the original “Tariff Man.” He promised to impose tariffs on China “until they stop dumping steel into the United States” during his 2016 presidential campaign, and he has hedged while criticizing Trump’s tariff threats, saying that “Trump is identifying a problem.”

“Certainly China’s role in dumping an enormous amount of steel, not only in the United States, but all over the world, is very, very clear. It has to be dealt with,” Sanders told the Daily Beast in March 2018. “In my view though, what you need is a comprehensive, a more comprehensive approach than Trump is laying out.”

Later Sanders called Trump’s imposition of tariffs on Mexico, the European Union, and Canada “haphazard and reckless.” Even so, Sanders backed Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And during the 2016 campaign Trump made the case that he and Sanders were “similar” on trade—both Trump and Sanders have used the word “disaster” to describe NAFTA—and Trump would no doubt make that case all over again were Sanders to become the 2020 nominee. Sanders also seeks military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria, and he’s praised Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea.

Matthew Duss, Sanders’s foreign-policy advisor, said the key difference between them is that Sanders believes that Trump’s confrontational approach to allies and friends is wrongheaded and only hurts the cause of helping ordinary Americans. “Trump has a zero-sum view of foreign relations. Sen. Sanders does not. Trump believes that if the other side is getting something, then the U.S. must be losing. Sen. Sanders believes that as the main challenges we face—climate change, rising inequality, political corruption—are shared, the solutions to those challenges must also be shared, and the United States has a major role in bringing countries together to find solutions that benefit everyone.”

Then there is Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is also considering a run and bluntly makes the case that he can out-Trump Trump as a longtime opponent of NAFTA and other trade agreements. “I will get a number of Trump voters because I fought for the things that Trump campaigned on, long before he did,” Brown said before his Senate re-election last fall. Later Brown called Trump a “phony” populist and said the true “home” for Trump voters “should be with a candidate and inside a party that advocates for them as workers, advocates for their health care, advocates for their pensions, advocates that when they put in a hard day’s work, they ought to get something out of it.”

Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s longtime speechwriter and deputy national security advisor, admits it’s going to be “tricky” for Democrats to win back voters lured away by Trump’s populist rhetoric, especially on trade. But he thinks they can succeed if they don’t get pulled in by the “false trap” of confronting Trump on his own terms.

“He embraces certain positions like withdrawing from overseas military deployments that are attractive to the electorate, but he goes about it in an incredibly stupid way,” Rhodes told Foreign Policy. “The reality is that the way to get us out of it is to do the opposite of what Trump has done”—in other words embrace alliances that can help the United States, supply moral leadership, and be far more engaged diplomatically. On trade, Rhodes said, the Democrats needs to be tough on China but use the trading system “rather than a wrecking ball approach of bilateral tariffs that is potentially going to drag the economy into recession.”

Other declared presidential candidates such as Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand don’t have as much of a track record on these foreign-policy issues, and they will likely take signals from the Democratic base as they go along. But some of the new contenders are already being pressed by the base toward Trump-style populism—and Trump-style protectionism. For example, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who’s also hinting at a run, is now moving toward a more populist position on NAFTA. While mayor of San Antonio Castro supported NAFTA and even came out for expanding the trade deal. More recently, however, he has said that it should be renegotiated to strengthen worker and environmental protections. Castro has also called for a U.S. pullout from Syria.

There remain, of course, many unbridgeable differences on foreign policy between the two parties: among them, respect for NATO, the G-7, and other major U.S. alliances, an issue on which most Democrats are unified against Trump; a willingness to stand up to the Saudis and call for an end to Riyadh’s war in Yemen; and, of course, a desire to take on Russia over its attacks on American democracy, which Trump has refused to do. Many Democrats are saying that 2020 is going to be less about policy differences than the more basic question of whether Trump is fit to be president at all. A slew of investigations, beginning with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia and whether he obstructed justice, will likely make that issue the central question of the 2020 campaign.

Above all, with Trump cozying up to autocrats (Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president, being the lone exception) and reluctant to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin—raising questions about whether he is compromised by Moscow—the incumbent will be extremely vulnerable to the charge that he is forsaking his role as leader of the free world. In a much-noted essay published after the government shutdown began, another 2020 prospect, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, even suggested that under Trump the United States might be vulnerable to a dictatorial takeover.

“If our institutions no longer work, if we no longer have faith in them, if there’s no way to count on government even functioning (three shutdowns this year alone), then perhaps ultimately we become open to something else,” he wrote. “If there were ever a man to exploit this precarious moment for our country and our form of government, it’s Trump.”

To some observers, that sounded like the opening shot of O’Rourke’s 2020 campaign.

Even so, the Democratic Party establishment has yet to fully reckon with its vulnerabilities on foreign policy—especially the idea that Trump’s rise to the presidency was in a way a populist twin to Sanders’s progressive appeal. Its liberal base is still fed up with Democratic centrism on many of these foreign-policy issues, from former President Bill Clinton’s full-on embrace of globalization and free trade to the willingness of centrists like Biden and former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to support the Iraq War. The Democratic 2020 prospects know they desperately need to reach the same disaffected middle-class voters who rejected Clinton for Trump and want a populist alternative.

All this could work to Trump’s advantage if he makes the case that he is still that candidate. At the very least, leading Democrats will have a lot of rhetoric to live down as the 2020 campaign gets underway. “I want to give him a big pat on the back,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said last year after Trump launched his trade war against China. “I have called for such action for years and been disappointed by the inactions of both President [George W.] Bush and Obama.” This sentiment was echoed by Brown of Ohio, a longtime trade populist. Referring to Trump’s earlier announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs, Brown said, “I wanted him to be aggressive and he was aggressive.” Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Brown’s Rust Belt neighbor, similarly pronounced himself “happy” with Trump’s tariff war.

According to one senior Democratic operative who worked in the Obama administration, in an election in which Democratic superdelegates (who once favored the establishment choice) will be partly sidelined, perhaps the biggest danger is that, rather than uniting against Trump, the party tears itself apart in the primaries fighting over how to present many of these same issues to the electorate.

That could result in a weakened candidate in the fall, not unlike what happened to Jimmy Carter in 1980 after he was challenged by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. “Precisely because the election looks winnable, people will want to have these fights in the primary,” the operative said. “The left is far more organized on this than at any point since 2007”—when Obama swept ahead of the favored Hillary Clinton because of a strong “anti-Iraq War infrastructure.”

Others suggest that the singular challenge of ousting what most Democrats agree is a uniquely odious president will outweigh all other considerations. According to Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress: “Democrats desperately want to win, and they want to beat Trump more than they care about any one ideological issue.”

Perhaps so, but the devil may be lurking in those very issues.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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