The inevitable question arrived: Would they repeal the steel tariffs imposed by President Trump? The 10 Democratic presidential candidates on the stage in Detroit on Tuesday evening generally stayed away from a direct answer. U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan captured the reluctance, saying he would “re-evaluate” the tariffs, adding about the president: “He’s bungled the whole thing.”

The congressman has a point about the bungling. What would a Democratic president do differently? Ryan talks about “new and better.” What does that look like in the realm of trade?

For now, the president has grabbed part of the message Democrats have voiced for years, slamming assorted trade agreements, echoing, in many ways, Ryan, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown. Recall Hillary Clinton bowing to the chorus and ditching her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership — negotiated by the Obama White House.

Trump promptly pulled out of the deal, he and other opponents neglecting the strategic value, countries in the Pacific region joining to counter Chinese power and ambition.

In the debate, Warren made a splash when she wondered “why anybody bothers to run for president just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” She opened with a warning about “small ideas and spinelessness.”

Well, there is a big, bold idea regarding trade. In the most recent issue of the Washington Monthly, Daniel Block, editor of the magazine, makes the case for what he calls the Atlantic Alliance, a free trade agreement with the European Union. He understands the political timing appears awful. At the same time, such an agreement presents an opportunity to build on a successful past, address current challenges and set a path for the future.

What is the component of the past? A trade pact would be the latest iteration of institutions and actions that helped to secure peace and prosperity after many decades of conflict in Europe. Think NATO and the Marshall Plan. The agreement would renew strategic ties and promote democratic values.

This bonding effect would come as Europe faces dark nationalist strains, similar to those on this side of the ocean, driven, in part, by economic anxiety and disruption. A trade agreement would promote jobs and growth overall through the opening of new markets. That doesn’t mean the fallout would be harmless, or the deal easy to reach. Yet, in this instance, the playing field is especially level. The economies are much alike, in such areas as wage levels, regulation and the broader structure.

These circumstances should be suited to giving workers more say in how the agreement functions and thus diminishing the clout of global corporations. Curbing greenhouse gases could be an operating principle. A deal involving 45 percent of the global economy, or the largest free trade zone in the world, would bring substantial leverage to advance shared interests, from narrowing the openings for demagogues to getting China to follow international trading rules.

There is the potential for addressing such things as tax evasion and antitrust concerns.

Imagine Democrats getting behind such an agreement. They would be positioned to turn the table in the trade debate, offering something constructive, even hopeful, departing from the familiar complaints, their own and those of the president. It would break from the current warring with tariffs, and the collateral damage they bring, many American farms and businesses already harmed.

To pick up the cause would require backbone from a candidate, especially in view of the trade policy paper unveiled by Elizabeth Warren last week. She makes a strong argument for giving labor and other stakeholders a greater say. She would do more to protect intellectual property. Yet she sets requirements for starting negotiations that she acknowledges our own country does not meet. She would publish each new draft of an agreement, an approach almost certain to discourage give and take.

Even sympathetic analysts have cautioned that her approach would have a familiar Trumpian effect, tending to isolate the country.

That isn’t the “new and better” Democrats need.

On Friday, the Trump White House touted a new agreement in which Europe will allow a higher amount of American beef exports. The presidential message was: We’re making more progress than our disputes suggest. Too bad a Democrat wasn’t at the ready with a proposal designed to go beyond spurring economic activity to reinforce what really has been great.

 

Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at mdouglas@thebeaconjournal.com.