When it comes to trade talks with China, most Democratic presidential candidates are trying to walk a fine line between skewering President Trump’s handling of the negotiations and expressing support for his embrace of tariffs — a tool traditionally favored by the union-friendly party.
Two days after the president, frustrated with the pace of negotiations, announced a new round of higher tariffs on Chinese goods, Democratic hopefuls were on the airwaves, slamming Mr. Trump’s approach.
Rep. Seth Moulton, who entered the presidential race last month, said the U.S. “absolutely” needs to be tougher on China in regards to trade and national security.
“They are stealing American ideas and American military secrets through the internet every single day,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t think this administration has a strategy. They don’t have any sense of urgency. And they clearly don’t know what this means to American families.”
On Friday, Mr. Trump raised tariffs from 10% to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese imports, escalating a trade war that appeared to be subsiding as a negotiators worked toward a deal.
“The relationship between President Xi [Jinping] and myself remains a very strong one, and conversations into the future will continue,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “In the meantime, the United States has imposed Tariffs on China, which may or may not be removed depending on what happens with respect to future negotiations!”
Larry Kudlow, the president’s economic adviser, said the problem was that China tried to backtrack two weeks ago, but there are “probably really good” chances that Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi will meet at the Group of 20 summit.
“Things seemed to be taking too long, and we can’t accept any backtracking,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We don’t think the Chinese have come far enough, we will wait and see. The talks will continue.”
Republican Sen. Rand Paul was skeptical of the president’s move, warning the strategy could undo the economic growth created by the GOP tax plan.
“We’re in the middle of this and the president is playing a negotiating battle with the Chinese and I think he feels that at this point they can’t really back out,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Get this done because the longer we’re involved in a tariff battle or a trade war, the better chance there is that we could actually enter in a recession.”
At least one Democrat shares Republican concerns on protectionism. Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California has objected to tariffs on China from the start, siding with home state’s tech companies that rely heavily on Chinese products.
But like others in the crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, Ms. Harris was clear when it came to criticizing the president’s handling of the talks. She said Sunday it was “irresponsible” for Mr. Trump to conduct foreign policy via Twitter, without working together with allies.
“The president and his administration have failed to realize we’re stronger when we work with our allies on every issue — China included,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Mr. Kudlow acknowledged that Americans will feel the brunt of consequences from the tariffs, in having to pay high taxes on Chinese goods.
“The Chinese will suffer GPD losses,” he said. “Again both sides will suffer on this.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Sen. Bernard Sanders are among the Democratic Party hopefuls grappling with how to distance themselves from Mr. Trump without dismissing outright the new tariffs, which some analysts say could help Mr. Trump broaden his appeal with Midwestern labor voters.
“On trade and tariffs, Trump, Warren, and Sanders are all competing for the same voters — working-class whites,” said Marc J. Hetherington, a political science professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He said it was important to remember that being against free trade used to be the Democrats’ position.
“Ronald Reagan would turn over in his grave if he knew Republicans today were championing tariffs,” he said. “This party transition on trade is still ongoing. There are still a lot of anti-free trade Democrats and a lot of pro-free trade Republicans.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer echoed their Democratic Party’s pro-tariff stance in voicing support for Mr. Trump’s hardball tactics with China.
“Hang tough on China,” Mr. Schumer tweeted to the president. “Don’t back down. Strength is the only way to win with China.”
A week ago, Ms. Warren said she supported Mr. Trump’s aggressive negotiations with China.
“What I’d like to see us do is rethink all of our trade policy,” the Massachusetts Democrat said on CNN. “I have to say, when President Trump says he’s putting tariffs on the table, I think tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy overall.”
But she quickly found fault when Mr. Trump followed through Friday.
“I don’t believe in tariff negotiation by tweet,” Ms. Warren said. “Our best way to fight back is with strength and with a coherent plan, not with chaos.”
Last year, Mr. Sanders said he “strongly supports” slapping tariffs on countries such as China.
He told “PBS NewsHour” last week that he still wants to protect U.S. workers but “not the way Trump is dealing with it.”
“I think we do need new trade policies that are fair to the working people of this country not just to the CEOs, but as usual, I think Trump gets it wrong in terms of implementation,” he said.
Mr. Biden, the Democratic front-runner, shrugged off the China trade threat as a nonissue.
“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” Mr. Biden said earlier this month.