06/13/2007 05:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Attention All Candidates: On Trade, Ignore the Editorials, Just Keep Listening to the People

What happened after Sen. Hillary Clinton announced in Detroit on Saturday that she would oppose the proposed US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, based on her careful analysis of the deal? Why, swift condemnation from the mainstream media editorial pages, of course.

This is one of the oldest pieces of political theater in Washington.

There were howls of protest when Sen. Barak Obama opposed the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005.

And when former Sen. John Edwards criticized outsourcing while barnstorming across primary states in early 2004, he received the same harsh editorial treatment.

In fact, nearly all the Democratic candidates these days seem to be -- insert collective opinion elite 'gasp' here -- running away from President Clinton's legacy of free trade and open markets.

The charges: the candidates are thinking small, pandering to labor, and failing to grasp the benefits of free trade.

The reality: the candidates are witnessing the toll those agreements are taking on America, and they are courageous enough to say it's time to change course.

The evidence: John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000, and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 all had nearly unblemished records of support for free trade, yet they all were endorsed by labor. The candidates' positions on trade were a very minor factor in each of these deliberations.

The candidates are challenging flawed trade policies because of their horrible outcomes, just as they would rationally analyze other public policy issues. And it isn't fair to say that they are thinking small -- exactly the opposite. Because it takes tremendous courage to admit mistakes, challenge the status quo and take stands that don't earn cheers from editorial boards.

In reality, President Clinton showed humble signs of change on trade late in his administration -- negotiating modest but important deals with Cambodia and Jordan that raised the bar for workers' rights in trade agreements. If you ask Clinton advisors now whether or not they thought they negotiated a good deal on China's accession to the World Trade Organization, nearly anyone taking a dispassionate view would admit that they could have -- and should have -- done much better.

During her six-plus years in the Senate, Hillary Clinton has paid careful attention to every region of New York, where Wall Street philosophy has been trumped by upstate reality: the Empire State has lost nearly 200,000 manufacturing jobs over the past seven years. She has seen that increased productivity and technology are not the main culprits, but rather poorly negotiated and enforced trade agreements. I'm certain she is seeing the same thing in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and in nearly every other state in which she now campaigns.

There can be no doubt that currency manipulation, illegal subsidies and dumping, trade deals that give incentives to ship jobs and not products overseas, and a stubborn refusal to stop these practices are closing plants and eroding the economic security of millions of families and thousands of communities across our nation.

But the hard work by the candidates has yet to be done. What does a new trade policy look like? How do we revitalize manufacturing in this nation? Voters know there is something wrong with the status quo, but they are hungry for a positive economic vision and a new trade policy.

Republicans, you are not off the hook. Every Republican candidate seeking to embrace the legacy of Ronald Reagan (and that seems to include all of them) should remember that he often -- but not always -- stood up for American producers in international trade, certainly more than either Bush has.

As for the editorial boards, I am convinced that only one thing will change their tune on trade -- receiving pink slips when their corporate masters finally realize how much cheaper the editorials will be to write in Bangalore, Shanghai or Ho Chi Minh City. But by then, it will be too late. Who will be able to buy their papers?