Are tariffs popular? Donald Trump seems to think so and, after nearly 18 months of imposing the border taxes willy-nilly, many Republicans seem to agree. They may soon get a political test of that proposition as Joe Biden, the Democratic leader in the 2020 race against Mr. Trump, took direct aim at the cost of tariffs in Iowa on Tuesday.
He added: “And how about manufacturing? Trump’s tariffs and trade wars are hitting a lot of American manufacturing—especially the American automobile industry—choking it to within an inch of its life.”
.. “America’s farmers have been crushed by his tariff war with China,” Mr. Biden said in remarks Tuesday evening in Davenport. “He thinks he’s being tough. Well, it’s easy to be tough when someone else is feeling the pain. How many farmers across this state and across this nation have had to face the prospect of losing their business, of losing their farm because of Trump’s tariffs?”
For one thing the tariff issue gives Mr. Biden a way to attack Mr. Trump on jobs despite the strong economy. Talking tough about alleged foreign cheaters is popular in the abstract. But when the costs become visible, in higher prices and lost markets from foreign retaliation, public support may drop. Talking about the pain of tariffs lets Mr. Biden focus on specific damage rather than having to dispute the health of the national economy.
.. Mr. Biden was also shrewd Tuesday to walk back his claim in May that China isn’t competition for the U.S. “We are in a competition with China,” he said. “They are a serious challenge to us, and in some areas a real threat.” But he added that “while Trump is pursuing a damaging and erratic trade war,” China is investing in “technologies of the future.” He then took the appealing line that the U.S. “can out-compete anyone.”
The Democratic front-runner is hardly pure on tariffs, having suggested only last week that they can be a tool to enforce carbon-fuel limits on other countries. He also favors much higher taxes, and his climate agenda is a Big Government fantasy. But in attacking Mr. Trump’s tariffs, he is setting himself apart from protectionist Democrats Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and reaching out to free-trading farmers and other American exporters.
All of which ought to be a warning to Mr. Trump. Farmers and business CEOs have been willing to give the President some political leeway on his tariffs because he says they are leverage for better trade deals. But if the deals don’t materialize, and the only tangible result is the pain, the politics of tariffs might not look so appealing in 2020.
Mr. Trump won Iowa in 2016 by 9.4 percentage points. In the most recent Iowa poll for 2020, in March, he trailed Mr. Biden by six.