Stop the Presses: Republicans Despise Free Trade... Do Their Candidates?

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET
  • Scott Paul President, Alliance for American Manufacturing

This is the moment I've been waiting for. Year after year, the Wall Street Journal pumps up the virtues of "free trade" through its own editorials, submissions on the op-ed page from various luminaries, rants against anyone who dares to challenge the orthodoxy and slanted news coverage of trade-related matters.

Now, despite all their efforts, the Journal reported last week that the vast majority of Republicans completely disagree with them. I'm tempted to do a victory dance, but I'd rather see the Republican presidential candidates respond. They have a chance at Tuesday's debate in Dearborn, Michigan, a state devastated by the job losses that result from failed U.S. trade policy. And they have a chance to listen to the concerns of voters in Iowa at our "Keep It Made in America" Town Hall meeting on October 17 that will showcase the growing bipartisan chorus for more accountability in our trade policy: challenging the currency and subsidy cheating employed by countries like China, making sure our imports are safe, and negotiating deals that actually improve our balance of trade, rather than worsening it.

Now I'm waiting for the next wave of stories, the ones that ask how Republicans could arrive at this position. Have they failed to read basic economic texts? Have they succumbed to the jingoism of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan? Do they get upset when the Ivy League professors tell them that all Americans need is more education in order to have job security? Or do they merely think Tom Friedman is annoying and want to oppose anything he says?

I have a different explanation, one that is more plausible. We have an enormous overall trade deficit and a record trade deficit with China. Even a declining dollar and the Chinese product recall wave won't put much of a dent in it. This deficit -- and the massive dollar reserves China has built up -- impacts all sorts of things in the U.S.: jobs, interest rates, the safety of our food and consumer products, our national security, and the flexibility we have in diplomacy.

Republican voters, like most Americans, want our government to be accountable, to provide security, and to encourage responsibility. With our current trade policy, they strike out on all three counts.

Unsafe imports arrive on our tables and in our toy boxes because U.S. trade policy and regulators favors cheap and fast imports over safe ones.

Many manufacturers and farmers face overseas competition that is subsidized -- unfairly -- while the Administration often turns a blind eye, costing us profits, jobs and income, and ripping at the social fabric of the heartland.

Despite lots of evidence that existing trade deals don't work particularly well, the Congress is asked to approve even more of them without a serious reassessment of the model.

The offshoring of manufacturing has reduced America's ability to supply our military and to ensure the smooth operation of our economy. Has anyone bothered to think how a Chinese blockade of Taiwan would impact our commerce, given our dependence on Asian-made computer and electronic goods? It could be a crushing blow.

Adam Smith and David Ricardo -- two of the Journal's favorites -- never really contemplated a world of globalized, stateless corporations that could shift production around at will. But that's the world we now live in. That's why it is time for the Republicans running for President to decide whether they want to embrace 19th century theory or prepare for 21st century reality. We know where the voters are -- in the here and now.