President Trump had the concerns of voters in key states in mind yesterday in his meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “The package of measures announced by Messrs. Trump and Juncker would have the EU buying more liquefied natural gas and soybeans from the U.S., and the two sides would begin a ‘dialogue to reduce differences on regulatory standards between the two economies,” Mr. Trump said.’
This diplomatic success will hopefully dull the impact of China's retaliatory tariff on soybeans, which itself was a response to the President’s order on steel tariffs this past March. That tariff followed through on a commitment made by Mr. Trump in 2016 to address unfair trade practices that hurt the steel industry in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The electoral votes of the latter states were a must for him to win in 2016 and will likely be vital in 2020. But without that calculation, he might not have won the election.
“Politics” has become a dirty word, but it’s the lifeblood of representative democracy. If candidates don’t compete for votes, voters don’t have a voice. The problem with our current system is that only votes in a handful of states carry any weight. In the case of President Trump's political survival, no votes in blue states matter and enough votes in solidly red states can be take for granted.
It's not a good system for voters nationally. Business Insider reported on July 8th that “80% of red-state economies benefit, at a level above the national median, from producing goods targeted by tariffs.” If the President was concerned about the majority of voters from those states, rather than just the slim plurality in the ones he needs to cross the finish line, he might have considered a more win-win approach that benefited voters everywhere. And, short of a tariff, there are options he could take that would accomplish that.
Writes former US Steel Vice President, Terrence Straub, "There is an existing and long recognized system of rules of trade engagement, internationally agreed to, that is designed to absorb and sort through these complaints that would avoid the upheaval we’re now seeing. The President, for instance, could have directed his Commerce Department to ‘self initiate’ trade cases thereby bringing all the power and resources of the federal government to bear."
Tariffs, useful in the short-run politically, could do more harm than good even for the industry the President aims to protect:
"If the larger negative reaction to the tariff announcement colors the general public’s attitude towards unfair trade complaints, the steel industry and the country will be the real losers in the long run. Setting up a dynamic that trades off a soybean farmers export income in Iowa for a steelworkers income in Indiana is an unfair and unsustainable model for the American economy and for addressing the very real issue of unfair trade."
So what would be a more permanent fix? Consider a popular vote system, which the majority of Americans support including President Trump. In that system, our president would have to consider the majority of voters, including those who would benefit from a fair trade policy.
As Straub explains it, “Steelworkers (or any voter for that matter) in a particular state would be more empowered with a direct election vote because their vote would count even if the state went against their candidate."