GOP Debate: Republican Candidates Argue Over Free Trade

When the GOP debate ended Thursday night, the two main topics which commentators and bloggers gravitated towards were Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s discussion over New York values as well as the ongoing controversy over Ted Cruz’s birthright status.

But one moment during the GOP Debate, which has been surprisingly ignored, was a discussion between the various Republican candidates on trade policy. And in a debate, which all too often had candidates lining to prove who was the most conservative or who could attack Barack Obama the hardest, the discussion on trade policy represents a real difference between what the various Republican presidential candidates believe.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) shake hands as they are introduced during the CNN presidential debate at The Venetian Las Vegas on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Thirteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the fifth set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The discussion on trade policy began when moderator Neil Cavuto asked Trump about a New York Times report that he would impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. Trump instantly declared that “That’s wrong. They were wrong. It’s the New York Times, they are always wrong.”

After the GOP debate, the New York Times released an audio file, which showed that Trump did in fact advocate for a 45 percent tariff. But while Trump denied claiming he was in favor of a 45 percent tariff, he declared that he was “totally open to a tariff” and would tax goods coming in from China.

According to Trump, the United States has a trade deficit of over $500 billion per year with the Chinese. This is caused by China devaluing their currency, which lowers the prices of their goods and destroys American jobs. Trump said to Cavuto that between “four and seven million jobs” and 50,000 companies have been lost to China.

After Trump finished and John Kasich said that there should be “open trade but fair trade in this country,” Marco Rubio jumped in to defend free trade. Rubio said that “China doesn’t pay the tariff, the buyer pays the tariff” as he argued that a company would just pass the additional costs of the tariff onto the consumer. Instead, Rubio called for America more business-friendly by reforming the tax system.

During the GOP Jeb Bush supported Rubio’s point, and from there said that if America imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, then the Chinese would likely impose tariffs in turn on American goods which would be “devastating for the economy.”

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush participate in the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The top-ten GOP candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on their rank in an average of the five most recent national political polls. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trump shot back in the GOP debate by calling Jeb weak and the Chinese smart. The crowd booed him in response.

While the debate moved on towards other topics, this short discussion over free trade is just another sign of the worsening divide between the various wings of the Republican Party. The GOP has traditionally been the party of free trade compared to the more protectionist Democrats. In 2005, the Senate passed a vote ratifying the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). 10 Democrats and 43 Republicans voted in favor of CAFTA while 33 Democrats and 12 Republicans voted against it.

But thanks to a more uncertain economic climate and the rise of Donald Trump, protectionism has become more popular within the GOP. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a key example. Acccording to Ballotpedia, only three of the 10 remaining GOP debate candidates (Kasich, Rubio, and Bush) have indicated their support for the TPP, while six Republican candidates oppose it (Chris Christie and Ben Carson did not indicate an opinion on TPP).

This is friendlier towards free trade compared to the Democrats, whose three candidates have all expressed their opposition towards TPP despite the support of Barack Obama. But as the Republican Party continues to face a fight between more moderate establishment candidates and a populist insurgent wing led by Trump and Cruz, it is possible that we may be witnessing a political shift in how they approach a key economic issue.

[Photo By Scott Olson/Getty Images]