Joe Biden says he wants to subdue divisive politics, and the economic policy program he rolled out last week shares key elements of the nationalist vision that dominates the Republican Party under President Donald Trump. The prospect of constructive bipartisan engagement is welcome, but the populist proposals sketched out by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee are not.

If elected in November, Biden would have a chance to draw Republican support for substantial parts of the agenda he laid out in a speech last week in Pennsylvania. But that’s largely because of the influence Trumpian populism and economic nationalism have had on a previously internationalist Republican Party.

A key part of Biden’s populist economic vision involves reviving manufacturing. He called for $400 billion in spending on materials and products made in the U.S. as part of a “Buy American” program, along with $300 billion in research and development to spur domestic innovation and support domestic production. He touted the crafting of a national industrial policy and downplayed the role of finance in creating prosperity. “It’s way past time we put an end to the era of shareholder capitalism,” Biden declared.

To the conservative ear, this sounded familiar. Ever since Trump’s 2016 victory, some Republicans have taken similar positions. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for example, is also critical of shareholder capitalism. He’s called for “a 21st-century pro-American industrial policy,” in part to revive domestic manufacturing. When asked about Biden’s speech in a television interview Monday morning, Rubio said “it’s great to see” Biden discussing the need to rebuild the U.S.’s manufacturing base.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Rubio joined with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and others on a bill calling for strengthening “Buy American” provisions to support the domestic market for medical goods.

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a rising star of conservative populism, is warmer to government intervention in the economy than Republican senators have typically been. This spring he announced a proposal to offer government-backed, low-interest loans for capital expenditures to businesses that bring production back to the U.S. from abroad. Rubio and Hawley have praised labor unions, as Biden did in Pennsylvania. Another Republican senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, recently joined Hawley and several other senators from both parties, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, to introduce the American Foundries Act of 2020 that aimed to boost the domestic production of semiconductor chips.

The collapse of the free-trade consensus that has dominated U.S. economic policy for decades would give a President Biden a chance to muster bipartisan support for his pro-manufacturing, industrial-policy agenda.

Would that be good for the country?


Protectionism and industrial policy, including buy-American mandates, raise consumer prices and the prices of goods businesses use for production, reducing domestic competitiveness. They invite corruption and cronyism, and can increase the burden on taxpayers for government procurement. They lead to diplomatic friction and invite retaliation. The U.S. trade war with China probably hurt manufacturing employment — the intended beneficiary — in addition to serving as a drag on the economy overall.

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