Democratic candidates split on the best path forward for US trade policy

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(WASHINGTON) -- Amid roiling trade tensions, the crowded 2020 Democratic candidate field now finds itself divided on a path forward on the tricky terrain of American trade -- a path made all the more difficult by President Donald Trump's protectionist stance and hardline tone on getting "fair deals" for the U.S.

Complicating matters are the threat of tariffs on some Chinese imports. Late Wednesday, Trump announced on Twitter that he's agreed to delay an increased tariff from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15, "as a gesture of good will."

He said the delay came at the request of the vice premier of China and was because of the country's celebration of its 70th anniversary.

Trump has imposed or announced penalties on about $550 billion in Chinese products. The tariffs of 25% -- which were imposed on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods -- were due to increase to 30% on Oct. 1.

 In August, the U.S. also announced a delay with a 10% tariff that was set to be slapped on $300 billion of Chinese imports in September. The "cell phones, laptop computers, video game consoles, certain toys, computer monitors and certain items of footwear and clothing" and other products subject to the delay would still be subject to the tariffs starting Dec. 15, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The move would likely come as a relief during the holiday shopping season, as economists say the cost of the U.S. tariffs are passed on to American businesses and consumers.

Democrats staking out more trade-friendly views contrast themselves with the Trump administration's hard-line; some have assumed the attack stance that isolationist trade policies hurt farmers rather than achieve fairer deals. It's a tricky tap dance for Democrats seeking to contrast themselves with Trump yet not alienate key Rust Belt or progressive grassroots voting blocs.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, like a number of 2020 candidates, has focused on rural crop communities on his several trips to early voting states such as Iowa. They've positioned themselves as fighting for farmers where Trump's tariffs have hurt the agricultural community.

In an op-ed on CNN timed with his town hall, O'Rourke said Trump's tariffs lead America's trading partners to turn elsewhere -- leaving farmers holding the bag.

"People are hurting with this biblical-strength flooding," Geoff Burgan, O'Rourke's Iowa communications director, told ABC News. "Farmers out here have regularly told [O'Rourke] 'We want trade, not aid.' And the future of rural America is something you can't get away from."

O'Rourke's climate proposal -- a sweeping $5 trillion plan -- specifically folds in initiatives focused on Midwestern agricultural communities -- agenda items like expanding federal crop insurance and investing in flood infrastructure.

Others, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, find themselves in a complicated position on trade.

Biden voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and permanent normal trade relations with China. He and O'Rourke also supported former President Barack Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- a sweeping multinational trade proposal that included Pacific Rim nations, which a number of unions opposed out of concerns about labor protections and that it would cost the U.S. jobs.

Some rival 2020 campaigns have hammered Biden on this perceived vulnerability.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who opposed NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, attacked Biden's voting record on trade, attempting to draw a sharp contrast between himself and his front-running presidential opponent.

"Joe voted for NAFTA and permanent trade relations, trade agreements with China. I led the effort against that. Joe voted for the deregulation of Wall Street, I voted against that," Sanders told ABC News White House Chief Correspondent Jonathan Karl during an interview on "This Week" in Des Moines, Iowa.

It's not the first time Sanders has spoken out strongly on trade; he has vigorously opposed policies like NAFTA from its inception, calling out his 2016 primary opponent Hillary Clinton for her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"I was on the picket line in opposition to NAFTA," Sanders said during the New Hampshire primary debate during the last election. "We heard people tell us how many jobs would be created. I didn't believe that for a second."

For the wide swath of Democrats running in 2020, a catch-22 now emerges: the powerful pull to align with Obama in symbolic legacy and the simultaneous need for would-be progressives to distance themselves from the Obama administration's less popular trade agenda.

"I think that back in the time during the Clinton administration, it made sense at the moment," the former vice president said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., joins Sanders in being long-time skeptics of free trade.

She vehemently opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, calling it "a rigged process" producing "a rigged outcome" for 40% of the U.S. economy, urging Congress in 2015 to reject the trade plan that would "tilt the playing field even more in favor of big multinational corporations and against working families."

Warren also opposed the United States Mexico Canada Trade agreement (USMCA), Trump's renegotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada, calling it "NAFTA 2.0" and voting against the plan in 2018. Stumping in Iowa, her speech has fiercely denounced big agro, calling for the breakup of industry mergers, charging "consolidation is choking family farms."

For those on the front lines, weathering the storm of trade wars and climate change alike, farmers at the center of the conflict will scrutinize candidates' positions and past voting records closely for who will prioritize their interests.

As things stand, farmers who spoke with ABC News expressed frustration.

"When we take China off the table for a demand for our products, we suddenly have a huge amount of supply and the price collapses," Matt Russell, a fifth-generation farmer in Iowa, who owns a 110-acre farm of produce, heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef told ABC News' Senior Washington Reporter Devin Dwyer. "The biggest thing is the loss of trade. That's the big story."

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