DETROIT — Bernie Sanders is making a stand in Michigan, attempting to blunt Joe Biden’s momentum with a statewide blitz this weekend and renewed attacks on “disastrous” trade deals backed by the former vice president.
With elected establishment Democrats rallying around Biden in the days before Michigan's Tuesday primary, Sanders went on the offensive Friday in Detroit during the first of several scheduled weekend stops in the battle ground state.
The democratic socialist blamed trade deals including the recently scrapped North American Free Trade Agreement for job losses, stagnating wages and growing income inequality in manufacturing hubs like Detroit, which he noted was once the wealthiest city in the country.
"One of the reasons we have gone from a GM economy to a Walmart economy is due to our disastrous, unfettered free trade policies," the Vermont senator said in a roundtable with union workers and leaders ahead of his rally at the TCF Event Center.
- Michigan Primary Tracker: Bernie Sanders plans four rallies in Michigan
- How Bernie Sanders won Michigan in 2016, and what to watch for on Tuesday
“I’ve done my best to oppose these disastrous trade deals. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has supported them.”
Experts continue to debate the lasting impact of NAFTA, which Republican President Donald Trump replaced this year. Labor unions have long argued that NAFTA encouraged manufacturers to leave Michigan and other manufacturing states in pursuit of lower-wage workers in Mexico.
Sanders recalled standing in a picket line to fight NAFTA in the early 1990s. He noted that Biden voted for the deal as a U.S. senator in 1993, and he reportedly defended that vote last year, saying “it wasn't" a mistake at the time.
Sanders is using that comment against Biden in new attack ads on Michigan television. On Friday, he extended the attack by criticizing Biden’s 2000 vote to extend "permanent normal trade relations" to China.
Biden and his supporters have deflected trade attacks by highlighting the former vice president’s support for Michigan’s auto industry, including the 2009 bailout extension by the Barack Obama administration widely credited with helping General Motors and Chrysler avoid collapse.
Facing similar criticism from Sanders in a January debate, Biden said "there will be no trade agreements in my administration without environmentalists and labor at the table, and there will be no trade agreement until we invest more in American workers."
For Michigan, like most states, free trade has brought negatives and positives.
International trade comprised $200 billion of Michigan’s $514 billion gross domestic product in 2017, at 39 percent, a greater share than any other state. Michigan did about $72 billion in trade with Canada in 2017, followed by $65 billion with Mexico, by far the state’s biggest trading partners.
The NAFTA effect
Since NAFTA came into force in 1994, Michigan has lost over 214,000 manufacturing jobs.
But in the six years after its creation, the state saw annual increases in factory work and pay, peaking in 2000 with nearly 900,000 manufacturing jobs and $44 billion in payroll.
Economic downturns and factory relocations pushed jobs down in subsequent years, and by the depths of the Great Recession, manufacturing jobs were slashed by nearly half to just over 425,000 jobs and $27 billion in payroll.
Economists have long debated how much of those losses were attributed to NAFTA and other trade deals or to other factors like factory automation. But most agree trade deals at least played a role in high-profile plant closures from the Big Three automakers and companies like Electrolux, which closed a 2,800-employee factory in Greenville, Michigan, and moved to Mexico.
Bob King, former president of the United Auto Workers, joined Sanders at the roundtable event in Detroit on Friday and praised him for a "very strong" record on trade deals.
"These agreements are really about sacrificing workers and communities for the greed of corporations and Wall Street," King said.
Linking the trade deals to Biden is new, but Sanders’ trade critiques are a callback to his success in Michigan four years ago. In 2016, he scored a surprise primary win over Hillary Clinton after attacking NAFTA, which her husband signed into law, and the Obama administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Trump blasted many of those same trade deals in his winning 2016 general election campaign. As president, Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP in 2017 and this year signed a NAFTA replacement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The effect of that revised deal, which Sanders voted against in the Senate, is not yet known.
“It’s possible to craft trade agreements that work for both sides,” Sanders said Friday, “but we cannot continue this race to the bottom where we are taking good paying jobs here in the United States and then sending them to countries around the world … where people are paid starvation wages.”
Bernie Sanders speaks with reporters in Detroit on Friday before a rally that attracted thousands of supporters. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
A most important state
Michigan is shaping up to be critical for Sanders. A win could help him halt momentum Biden has built up from Super Tuesday wins and endorsements from elected officials like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“That wasn’t her thought when I came here to help her get elected,” Sanders said of Whitmer, who he endorsed in the 2018 general election after backing Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary.
Biden also endorsed Whitmer and campaigned for her in Metro Detroit.
In a nod to the state’s importance, Sanders is planning to spend the weekend in Michigan, focusing on the state over five others that will also hold primaries on Tuesday.
He kicked things off in Detroit, where he struggled to connect with African American voters in 2016 and was joined Friday by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, Harvard professor Cornel West and thousands of other enthusiastic supporters.
“This is a once in a lifetime moment to elect someone who won’t sell us out,” Tlaib said, introducing Sanders. "He's about to win Michigan."
Sanders will continue his statewide swing on Saturday with a campaign stop in Dearborn and a Flint town hall “on racial and economic justice.” He’ll be in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor on Sunday and return to Detroit on Monday for a televised Fox News town hall.
“We are in the midst of a very, very difficult primary process,” Sanders told reporters in Detroit. “Every state is terribly important, and I think come Tuesday, maybe Michigan is the most important state.”
Biden isn’t personally expected in Michigan until Monday, the day before the primary, when he’ll host rallies in Grand Rapids and Detroit at venues his campaign has not yet disclosed. In the meantime, he’s sending in a wave of surrogates to blanket the state over the weekend.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who recently ended her own presidential campaign and endorsed Biden, stumped for him Friday in Detroit. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware and Rep. G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina were expected at Michigan events on Saturday and Sunday.
At Friday night’s rally, Sanders rolled through his greatest-hit policy reel in Detroit, proposing a $15 minimum wage and touting ambitious but expensive plans to provide all Americans with free college, cancel student debt and create a government single-payer health care system dubbed Medicare for All.
"It is time to end the international embarrassment of the United States being the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care for all people," Sanders said. "We believe that health care is a human right."
As Bridge Magazine has reported, about 535,000 Michigan residents lack health insurance and rising costs are a concern. Residents and businesses would face significant tax hikes to pay for Sanders' plan, but he contends most Americans would ultimately save money because they would no longer have to pay health insurance premiums and other out-of-pocket costs.
While he criticized Biden on trade and other fronts, Sanders saved his most attacks for Trump, calling the president a “liar and a fraud.”
Sanders railed on the Trump administration for supporting a lawsuit that seeks to end the Affordable Care Act's guarantee of coverage for patients pre-existing medical conditions, which the president has publicly said he wants to continue.
“Together we are going to defeat the most dangerous president in American history,” Sanders said. “We are going to defeat Trump because the American people, no matter what their policy views may be, understand that we cannot have a pathological liar in the White House.”
Despite a tumultuous primary, Sanders reminded supporters that all Democratic candidates have vowed to support the party’s nominee.
“Joe Biden has said if I win, he will support me. I have said that if Joe Biden wins, I will support him. Because all of us know that while we have differences, that at the end of the day we come together to defeat Trump.”
First in line
The Republican National Committee, in a statement released ahead of the Detroit rally, predicted that “Bernie Sanders’ socialist agenda of banning all fossil fuels and eliminating private health insurance will not resonate with voters across the Great Lakes State.”
“Michiganders have no interest in these socialist policies,” the GOP said.
Rebecca Gillette is, in fact, interested in those policies. The self-described socialist drove from Saginaw to Detroit early Friday to see Sanders, whose face emblazoned her T-shirt. She arrived five hours early and was first in a long line of supporters.
“I like how he’s not bought out by the lobbyists,” Gillette said of Sanders. “He’s consistent in his policies, and ultimately, I think he’s the best person to beat Trump.”
Health care is a front-of-mind concern for the 23-year-old Saginaw Valley State University student, who said she’s already starting to worry about how she’ll pay for her own insurance in three years when she can no longer remain on her parents’ policy. She’s seen friends struggle to afford coverage on their own.
Gillette supports Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal over Biden’s plan to expand the Affordable Care Act, a law that is allowing her to stay on her parent’s insurance until she is 26.
And she said she is not planning to vote for Biden if he ends up winning the Democratic nomination.
“It would go against my ideology, and I would rather stay true to my ideology,” she said. “Biden will get beat by Trump.”