Brief Note on the Politics of Trade

Rather oddly, given the national mood, the midterms were a good night for advocates of freeish trade. That’s right, freeish. My sense is that our trade barriers, including non-tariff barriers, are about as low as they’re going to be in the near future. The “free trade agreements” that we pursue these days are better described as “preferential trade agreements,” which place heavier emphasis on imposing restrictive IP rules on the signatories. I tend to think of politicians who don’t actually want backsliding on trade to be the good guys, and the small handful who are committed to going beyond that to be genuine heroes.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, an organization that advocates trade restrictions, has published an extensive report detailing the success of trade-skeptical congressional Democrats on Tuesday. As Todd Tucker, the organization’s research director, writes:

After we’ve analyzed 800 30-second political ads and monitoring over 360 candidates of both political parties, Public Citizen has released a new report showing that House Democratic candidates that ran on fair trade themes were three times more likely to survive the GOP tidal wave than those that campaigned against fair trade. Moreover, over 70 Republicans in both swing districts and very GOP-leaning districts also adopted what has been a winning fair trade formula for Dems in the last two elections.

For those of us who (respectfully) disagree with Public Citizen’s Agenda, this might sound like bad news. And Tucker suggests that trade-skepticism was a boon for the candidates who embraced it:

The main implication of this is that President Obama needs to make a major break from the failed Bush-Clinton-Bush trade agenda. Our report shows that there would be widespread public and bipartisan congressional support for such a change. If Obama instead decides to take up President Bush’s trade deals with Korea, Panama and Colombia as his own without major changes, he risks his party’s electoral prospects in 2012.

Yet Phil Levy of Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog offers a different take:


Depending on which fantasy trade lineup you used, the results fell just short of a clean sweep for trade. The New York Times fantasy team listed Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) as trade skeptics and they all won. Arguably, though, there was a lot more going on in those races. The story was different for Times House players, however. Democrat Rep. Zack Space in Ohio tried to deploy the China card, and lost. In Colorado, Republican challenger Ryan Frazier tried to link incumbent Democrat Rep. Ed Perlmutter to shipping jobs to China and failed to oust him, despite the broader trend of the election.

The results are even starker if you follow a Foreign Policy scorecard from late September. Max Strasser identified five races in the Midwest in which the trade critic played the “red-menace card” and linked his opponent to China trade. That particular Democrat fantasy team: Ohio Lt. Governor Lee Fisher (running for the Senate); Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (running to keep his job), U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (running for the Senate in Pennsylvania); Lansing Mayor Virgil Bernero (Michigan gubernatorial candidate); and Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (running for the President Obama’s old Senate seat). They were swept last night. 0 for 5.

In many of these races, one could quibble about how important the trade issue really was to the outcome. If there were a single race, though, in which trade emerged as the central issue, it was the race for the Senate in Ohio. Rob Portman, former U.S. Trade Representative, was blasted for his role in pursuing trade agreements and supporting open markets. Or, rather, I should say, ‘Senator-elect’ Portman was blasted; he won with over 57 percent of the vote, compared to Lee Fisher’s 39.

Many have attributed right-of-center victories this past Tuesday to a climate of xenophobic hysteria. But one gets the impression that China-bashing, for example, was far more politically salient and effective in 2006. There was a time when “Blue Dogs” were enthusiastic free traders, but that changed during the Bush years. Many of the moderate Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 were profoundly trade-skeptical, and a large number of them have now been swept away. 

To be sure, there is no reason to believe that congressional Republicans will be proactive on trade policy. And I tend to think that our new PTAs aren’t terribly well-designed. I’d like to see conservatives in Congress become more sophisticated about trade and intellectual property and copyright, etc. But it is nice to see some of the most fervently trade-skeptical candidates go down.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...

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