For Democrats, responding to President Trump ’s aggressive trade actions hasn’t been easy.
Senators seen as possible presidential candidates in 2020 have repeatedly called for tougher actions on trade from the executive branch, with some saying President Obama didn’t do enough.
But that doesn’t mean they want to back Trump, whose unpopularity with the left means virtually any policy he backs is reviled.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) offered a mixed review of the 25 percent tariffs on steel and 10 percent tariffs on aluminum that Trump officially announced on Thursday.
“The proposed tariffs take the right approach but they target a narrow section of the economy and put our allies in the same boat as countries like China that cheat constantly on trade, all while the administration ignores the room of the problem,” she said in a statement provided to The Hill ahead of Trump’s announcement.
Asked a slate of follow up questions, a spokeswoman for Warren declined to comment further.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took a similar approach, arguing that Trump was making a mistake in not singling out China.
“I think the main target of our concern has got to be China,” he told CNN, adding that he would support revoking permanent normal trade relations with that country, a step that could raise tariffs on all Chinese imports.
An aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she would take a look at Trump’s proposal, while an aide to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said she “supports fair trade but believes these actions by President Trump will only bring us closer to a trade war that will hurt California jobs and our workforce.”
Walking briskly through the Capitol basement, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said he would “obviously have strong feelings” about the issue but declined to comment until he had seen the details of Trump’s announcement.
It’s not hard to imagine a world in which Democrats would back the steel and aluminum tariffs.
In the 2016 primary, Sanders won support by moving to the left of Hillary Clinton on trade. Under pressure, Clinton withdrew her support for a Pacific Rim trade deal backed by Obama.
Trump’s political ascendance, however, has scrambled trade politics.
Trump campaigned as a trade skeptic, going against his won party and winning the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — a first for a Republican candidate in decades.
A new Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that most Democrats oppose the tariffs and don’t approve of Trump’s handling of trade policy.
Seventy three percent of Democrats oppose the steel and aluminum tariffs, compared to 20 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Independents, according to the poll.
Eighty-five percent of Democrats also disapprove of Trump’s handling of trade and 90 percent say they disagree with the president’s statement that trade wars are “good and easy to win.”
A few Democrats have offered support for Trump’s tariffs, including Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio), who face reelection in states won by the president.
“Today’s action finally sends a clear message to our trading partners that we aren’t going to allow them to cheat Americans out of their jobs and infect global markets,” said Brown, who is frequently mentioned as a dark horse 2020 contender.
Manchin added on Thursday that it was “past time” for a president to protect American interests.
“I believe our allies and our trading partners will understand that the president cannot stay silent any longer, he must give this country and West Virginia workers a fighting chance,” he said in a statement.
Democratic leaders in the Senate have struck a line close to the rhetoric employed by Warren and Sanders.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, lambasted the decision before Trump had even finished making the announcement.
“The sweeping tariffs announced today are like dropping a bomb on a flea. Launching an all-out trade war will alienate the allies we need to actually solve the problem of steel dumping, and could have huge unintended consequences for American manufacturers who depend on imported materials,” Durbin said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) joined with Republicans to publicly urge Trump to back down.
But he also noted that he was ideologically aligned with Trump on trade than he was with Obama.
“President Trump has identified the right opponent, China, much better than both Obama and Bush administrations did. Both Democrats and Republicans have been blind to this issue, and Trump isn’t,” he said.
Still, Schumer warned that Trump’s proposed tariffs were “haphazard” and not well thought through.
“Don’t swing blindly and wildly at our foe, China,” he said, hours before the president announced his plan. “Trump ought to rethink his plan so it actually achieves what he says he wants it to achieve.”