Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hope on Trade?

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published a piece lamenting the fact that Obama is going to have a hard time if he wants to govern as a free trader:

Since at least John F. Kennedy, presidential candidates have campaigned as tough on trade and then governed as free traders. Some business leaders are expecting the same if Barack Obama makes it to the White House.

Don't count on it.

Sen. Obama, the Democratic party frontrunner, and his rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, have expressed some support for trade liberalization during their careers, as public opinion and congressional politics have shifted markedly against free trade. A coalition of anti-free trade activists and labor unions also has used the long primary season to wring commitments from the two candidates on an astonishingly detailed list of trade issues, making it hard for them to reverse course.

In the general election, Sen. McCain plans to use his stance to present himself as outward-looking on economic issues, says an adviser, while the Democratic nominee is likely to counter that Sen. McCain is out of touch with ordinary Americans.

The political environment has been weakening for a decade as Americans blame trade for job loss and stagnant wages.

A number of trade skeptics won seats in the 2006 Congressional elections and the Democratic party is recruiting other anti-free traders to compete for open seats in 2008. Even Democratic free-trade intellectuals are focusing more on the downsides of global integration.

The change in Democratic Party politics makes it less likely that Sens. Obama and Clinton would change their views if they make it to the White House. For the past 50 years, presidential candidates have wooed voters with pledges on trade and sometimes cracked down on specific sectors. Presidents Kennedy and Richard Nixon restricted textile imports. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton took on Japanese imports. And George H.W. Bush promised to help the West Virginia steel industry and delivered import restrictions.

But all of them governed largely as free traders, negotiating arduous rounds of global and regional trade negotiations that lowered tariffs and opened the U.S. and foreign markets wider to international competition, sometimes at the cost of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

I’ve always had very serious doubts Obama’s commitment to his criticisms of free trade, mainly because he has a record of voting for further free trade deals and hiring free trade economists as his chief economic advisers. But what this article suggests is that believe it or not, that whole democracy thing might be taking hold of the trade issue after all these years.

If there is enough popular support, and hopefully with the help of the newly created leftist infrastructure on trade, we can fight back any attempt to go back on those promises, or even stop their plans before they start with a continued show of power. Obama and his advisers may be free traders at heart, but if we can convince them that it’s not worth wasting their political capital on a costly fight that would alienate a large chunk of his supporters, then we might have a chance. Either way, the good news remains that the support and infrastructure for fighting these deals is better than it’s been at any time in the twenty or so years. And if that remains in place, we will be in a position to make progress or fight back no matter what the next president decides to do.

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