You may not know this but the United States will have a presidential election in 2016 and there are candidates everywhere! The first two Republican presidential debates have already occurred, covering everything from Iranian nukes to whose image should appear on the $10 bill.
One vital issue, however, has received almost no attention: free trade.
In the months ahead, as primary voters consider their choices, we need to do a better job of forcing candidates in both parties to explain their views on a topic that impacts every one of us.
I’m going to start this Saturday, when Carly Fiorina attends a fundraiser that I’m co-hosting in my Iowa hometown. The event isn’t for her—it’s for state candidates—but she’ll be a big draw.
And it will provide an excellent opportunity for her to tell farmers like me where she stands on free trade.
In last week’s Republican debate at the Reagan Library in California, neither she nor any of the other candidates mentioned trade. In two debates that have lasted a total of five hours, the subject has come up only once. Of the presidential candidates, Donald Trump has been the most vocal. He offered the vague promise in August of “great trade deals.”
We need to hear more.
I’m all for “great trade deals.” Who isn’t? Yet I’m worried about what Trump has in mind—and I’m concerned that his rivals haven’t criticized him for a protectionist vision that has the potential to devastate our economy.
All summer, Trump has bashed free trade. “We will renegotiate our trade deals,” he said in June, when he announced his candidacy. Two days later, in an interview on Fox News, he repeated this pledge: “I would renegotiate trade agreements. The trade agreements are horrible.”
The operative word in these statements is “renegotiate.” He pledges to alter the opportunities we already enjoy—the ones that we have built through decades of careful bargaining, and which have accounted for a huge portion of our country’s economic growth since the onset of the Great Recession.
Trade agreements are easy to take for granted. They remind me of electricity. When we flip on a light switch, we don’t give much thought to the massive infrastructure behind it, from the power stations to the distribution grid to the wiring in our homes. Instead, we just expect that the lights will go on.
The only time we really think about the lights is when they fail to work, such as during a power outage.
Trade is the same way. We take its blessings for granted—but we’ll miss them if they’re gone.
Unfortunately, Trump’s approach to trade would turn off the lights on our export markets: In his 2011 book “Time To Get Tough,” he wrote of his desire to “mandate … a 20-percent tax for importing goods.”
This bad idea would force us into an economic blackout.
It would spark a huge trade war between the United States and the rest of the world. As our trade partners retaliated, everyone would lose. Workers whose jobs depend on exports would hit the unemployment rolls. Ordinary Americans would see consumer prices skyrocket.
Farmers would suffer, too. Like the typical American who raises corn and soybeans, I sell about one-third of my harvest to customers in other countries.
In Trump’s trade war, I’d be among the first casualties.
We don’t need candidates who boast of “great trade deals” but in fact preach protectionism. We need a president who can demonstrate a basic appreciation for how much we already depend on trade agreements as well as an understanding of why we need more.
So here’s a question every candidate should answer: What specific steps would you take as president to expand American trade opportunities?
There are many good answers, from calling for a satisfying conclusion to the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks to lowering trade barriers with Europe to jump starting the moribund Doha round of global trade talks.
Let’s hope that the candidates tackle this question in their upcoming debates. The Democrats will meet for the first time on October 13 and the Republicans will gather again on October 28.
Meanwhile, let’s not expect debate moderators to do all of the work for us. Let’s ask the question ourselves, when we have a chance—as I will this Saturday, when I meet Carly Fiorina.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology / Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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