MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
One issue that may well come up at tonight's debate is trade. President Trump came to office as a fierce critic of U.S. trade policy, saying it's cost jobs for American workers, and he has upended many of the most important U.S. trade relationships. That has left the Democrats running for president searching for ways to distinguish themselves, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: In their rhetoric on trade, it can be hard to tell the difference between President Trump and the Democrats running to replace him. Here's Trump during the Republican Convention.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I pledge to never sign any trade agreement that hurts our workers or that diminishes our freedom and our independence. We will never, ever sign bad trade deals. America first again. America first.
ZARROLI: And here's Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on MSNBC last spring.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: We have got to establish trade policies which do not allow corporate America to simply shut down in this country and refuse to pay workers here a decent wage and move to countries around the world, where they're paying people pennies an hour.
ZARROLI: Democrats have traditionally been the party of the working class, of labor unions. Much more than Republicans, they have been skeptics of global trade. But Trump has been able to outflank Democrats, says Dan Ikenson of the Cato Institute.
DAN IKENSON: It's pretty interesting because it's like Donald Trump has co-opted democratic trade policy.
ZARROLI: At one time, voters were more open to the promise of global trade, and Democratic presidents, such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, could position themselves as free traders. But years of watching jobs flee overseas has soured many voters in both parties on trade pacts, such as NAFTA, says Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution.
ELAINE KAMARCK: Even before Trump, there was the beginning of a sort of left-right consensus that we needed to do something about trade and particularly something about China.
ZARROLI: Front-runner Joe Biden once supported trade pacts, but he's been forced to soft-pedal his positions.
Lori Wallach is founder of Global Trade Watch and a big critic of trade pacts, such as NAFTA. As she sees it, Democrats are finally returning to their roots as the party of labor.
LORI WALLACH: The Democrats that are running for president are largely reflecting where Democrats in Congress have been for decades and the Democratic base.
ZARROLI: But Wallach says Democrats have tried to differentiate themselves from Trump by saying he hasn't delivered on trade. Despite a chaotic trade war, for example, there's still no trade agreement with China.
Again, Elaine Kamarck of Brookings.
KAMARCK: He's been on and off and around and up and down. And nobody knows where the negotiations stand. And he says things that aren't true. And so I think on trade, this will come down to a matter of the president's competence.
ZARROLI: To Dan Ikenson of the pro-trade Cato Institute, the political dynamic is disappointing. None of the front-runners is making a vigorous case for the economic benefits of trade, he says. Trump has launched a populist attack on trade.
IKENSON: And the response we're getting from many of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination is to go to the left. What happened to the abandoned center? That seems, to me, to be a place where a lot of good things can happen.
ZARROLI: But as the election approaches, it's unlikely any candidate will be defending trade too aggressively. To win in 2020, candidates will have to make their case in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and those are parts of the country that have seen a huge loss of manufacturing jobs over the years.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF LELE MARCHITELLI'S "LATER")