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Warren calls for US trade overhaul as she pitches populism in the Midwest

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren. Elise Amendola/Associated Press/Associated Press

TOLEDO, Ohio — Elizabeth Warren took the stage on Monday night in a state that has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs over the past 50 years and pledged to overhaul the nation’s trade policies with strict new rules that she said would “strengthen America.”

Sounding a bit more like President Trump than President Clinton as she complained about companies that have shipped jobs from America to Mexico, Warren told an overflow crowd under the florescent lights of a job training facility that she would require trading partners to follow tough new labor and environmental standards, and make trade negotiations more favorable to American workers.


“We’ve got to have the people who represent American workers and American interests at the table to do the negotiating,” Warren said, to a burst of applause. “We need to use the leverage of American markets to drive up standards around the world.”

A day before she faces fellow populist Bernie Sanders on a crowded Democratic debate stage, Warren detailed her call for a more restrictive approach to trade in a 3,316-word post on the Medium website Monday. She detailed nine conditions other countries would have to meet to make trade deals with the United States — an onerous requirement that would effectively require the renegotiation of major trade agreements.

She also called tariffs — much beloved by President Trump — an “important tool,” but said they need to be part of a “broader strategy that this administration clearly lacks.”

Warren’s apprehension toward free trade puts her at odds with centrist Democrats, like former Vice President Joe Biden, who have been proponents of free trade deals like NAFTA, which was signed by President Clinton, and the Trans Pacific Partnership, which was proposed by President Obama.

But it could help her make inroads with working-class voters in the upper Midwest , a constituency that helped Trump secure the presidency after he campaigned frequently in states like Michigan and Ohio, decrying deals he said shipped jobs abroad, and drawing support from rank-and-file union workers and other laborers who had long supported Democrats.


“When you’re talking about manufacturing, when you’re talking about trade, these voters are listening,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh Democratic strategist. “She’s on the right path when she’s talking about not dismissing the idea of tariffs and leveling the playing field.”

Warren called the extensive plan the third plank of her “economic patriotism” agenda, and it is the latest in a series of highly detailed plans that Warren says she’ll work to enact if elected president. In addition to the high standards she is setting for trade agreements, she proposed ensuring that rules that require the federal government to purchase American-made goods are enshrined in trade agreements.

The plan would also seek to lower the cost of prescription drugs by stopping the practice of pushing trade partners to agree to lengthy “market exclusivity” periods for US pharmaceutical companies.

“What she’s doing on trade is really important and distinctive,” said Stanley Greenberg, a pollster who has studied voters in the upper Midwest, adding that trade is a deeply important issue for working-class voters.

Polls show Warren often tends to do better with voters with higher levels of education and income. A national Quinnipiac poll released on Monday showed she had the support of 22 percent of voters who earn more than $100,000 annually, 13 percent of voters who made between $50,000 and $100,000 annually, and 11 percent of voters who made less than $50,000 annually.


“She’s got to shore up her support with working class voters, noncollege voters, no question,” said Ron Lester, a Democratic pollster. “If she does that, she will be very competitive.”

Some of the voters who came to see Warren in Toledo said they were delighted to hear her take on trade so directly.

“There’s a lot of people that feel like they’re not being listened to, here in Toledo and all over,” said James Clark, an electrician who wore a ‘Make America Union Again’ T-shirt to the event, and said he agreed with her trade proposal. “One of the things she said is that we need to protect our workforce and allow unions to flourish again — that’s all great stuff.”

Keith Williams Jr., a 26-year-old accountant who came to the event with his father, a Ford employee and United Auto Workers member also named Keith Williams, said he had been deciding between Warren and Sanders before the event. By its end, he said, both men were leaning toward Warren.

“We’ve got to start talking to working-class people that live in our regions and stop, I don’t want to say catering to the coastal Democrats, but focus on working-class union households,” the younger Williams said.

Christina Prignano of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessbidgood