Why I'm Not Worried About Free Trade

| Thu Jun. 16, 2011 1:36 PM EDT

Dan Drezner, after listening to the GOP debate earlier this week, is once again unhappy about the current lousy state of support for further liberalization of trade:

What's more disturbing, however, and uncommented until now, was the total lack of support for freer trade among the GOP field....All of the candidates focused like sharks with frikkin' laser beams attached to them on the economy. The standard GOP litany of solutions for jump-starting the economy were offered: tax cuts, cutting regulation, tax cuts, cutting government spending, tax cuts, reigning in the Fed, tax cuts, ending Obamacare, tax cuts. Not one of the candidates, however, mentioned trade liberalization as part of their fornmula for getting America moving again.

To be fair, this isn't as bad as when Obama and Clinton were debating over who would eviscerate NAFTA faster in 2008 (and funny, isn't it, how that never happened). And it's not like I was a huge fan of Obama's trade policy. To be just as fair, however, at least the current president completed KORUS negotiations and signaled strong interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I get the sense that no one in the GOP field is going to stick their neck out on international trade or investment. For the party that claims to be in favor of lower taxes and regulation, this is a travesty.

Dan continues to be worried. I continue to yawn. Why? Partly because of that first bolded statement: when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were pandering to anti-NAFTA sentiment before the Ohio primary in 2008, it was obvious even at the time that they weren't serious about it. As I said at the time, "The fact that Obama and Clinton jacked up the anti-NAFTA rhetoric just in time for the Ohio primary and will almost certainly abandon it on Wednesday is all the evidence I think we need." It was, namely, evidence that this was just political posturing and neither one of them was really anti-trade.

For the same reason, I don't take seriously the lack of trade boosterism among the Republican candidates this year. Are they going to stick their necks out in favor of trade agreements when the economy is still in shock and registered voters everywhere are worried about their jobs being offshored? Of course not. They aren't suicidal, after all. Frankly, I'm surprised that Senate Republicans are even going so far as to use pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama as hostages for some of Obama's executive branch nominees. That's more support than I would have expected.

If you're a trade liberalization fan, there's not much to be happy about right now. But let's be honest: during a massive economic downturn that features epic levels of unemployment, mere lack of progress isn't bad. Of course no progress is likely to be made right now. But the fact that no serious ground has been lost either just goes to show how permanently free trade has become the default position of virtually everyone on both the left and the right. When the economy picks up, support for trade liberalization will pick up right alongside it.

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