This will be my only post for February, but the truth is it has taken all of February to research and write and it's been a moving target. I started before Super Tuesday when each party had at least 3 candidates whose positions needed to be evaluated. When time got away from me, it turned into an analysis of where we stood with the candidates still standing after Super Tuesday. Well it's time to get it done for better or for worse, so having evaluated the candidates' positions on their official websites, as quoted in news stories, and as revealed in their voting records as public officials I've shortened up the analysis. In the end this is probably a good thing anyway -- let's face it, if you're looking to an international business blog to get a handle on where the candidates stand on global trade, you're looking to shortcut some of the detailed analysis anyway.
I should stress at the outset that this is not a political blog, but a blog about international trade and business -- and while I feel that international trade and relations is a critical issue for the US and its soon to be new president, there are certainly a great many other issues that can drive a legitimate difference of opinion over who is the best candidate. Accordingly, this is not an endorsement column, but I did think it might be a good time to at least look at the remaining candidates' records and stands around international trade.
First off, as a general matter, it used to be that the Republican Party was pro-trade and the Democratic Party tended to be more protectionist given its traditional base of support among labor unions. On the one hand Bill Clinton, the first Democrat to have been elected to two successive terms as president since FDR, was very much a free trade supporter having spent considerable political capital championing the passage of NAFTA. At least among Democrats who share Bill Clinton's perspective, there seems to be a realization that the US needs to lead in the world and that exercising that leadership role requires active engagement with the world, and that global commerce is the principle platform on which the engagement will take place -- you need to either play or get out of the game, and they seem to realize that getting out of the game is not an option.
Conversely, the Republican faithful seem to have gone in the other direction. While I can't lay my hands on the reference, there was a poll reported in the Wall Street Journal last year indicating that over two thirds of Republican's now feel that international trade disadvantages the United States, putting Republican's perspectives on an equally negative footing as the traditional Democratic protectionist view. As discussed in previous posts, this perspective seems to rest on an unfortunate ignorance of the reality of global trade, but it is this ignorant perception that will nonetheless be forging the GOP platform going into the general election.
Bill Clinton's pro-trade policies notwithstanding, the fact also remains that a great number of the current Democratic leadership are still hostile to free trade. In a post last month on the Economist's View blog, there is a great quote from Alan Blinder in a piece from the NY Times entitled "Stop the World (And Avoid Reality)" in which Mr. Blinder writes:
Opinion polls show that Americans are both weary with and wary of the rest of the world. It’s as if they wish it would all just go away. Naturally, this sentiment is reflected in the current presidential campaign. Among Democrats, it may manifest itself in attitudes toward international trade that range from lukewarm support to outright hostility. Among Republicans, it shows up in attitudes toward immigration — and most things foreign — that border on xenophobia.
So the bottom line is that party affiliation is no guide as to where a particular candidate stands on free trade -- which brings us to the individual positions of the 3 remaining serious contenders and what I can now only describe as a couple of hangers on.
Given the general mood regarding global trade described in Alan Binder's article, I suppose it should be no surprise although it is still disappointing from an international business perspective that none of the candidates address free trade as an issue worthy of consideration on their official websites. International issues are pretty uniformly cast in terms of the war in Iraq, combating global terrorism, support for Israel, and calls for reform and enforcement of immigration policies.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton comes the closest to suggesting a stand on her official website, labeling one of the substantive issues "Restoring America's Standing in the World". The discussion it turns out is more around engaging the world on social issues, but her emphasis on the need for America remaining a "preeminent leader for peace and freedom" through cooperative alliances seems to echo Bill Clinton's view of the need for the US to be affirmatively engaged with the world, avoiding the protectionist jargon that colors so much political rhetoric on international issues. As discussed more below, however, with the make or break primary in the industrial heartland of Ohio looming, Ms. Clinton's own position on international trade seems to be taking a sharp list on the road to nowhere.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney (who unfortunately from an international trade standpoint has suspended his campaign effectively dropping out of the race) came the closest to addressing global trade issues on his official website, casting a part of his "Strategy for a Stronger America" as "Winning the Global Economic Competition." Again, the discussion itself didn't exactly hit the nail on the head, focusing almost entirely on domestic tax policies that Romney promotes as a means of ensuring the competitiveness of American business, but the fact that he sees the issue in terms of competition in a global market of privately held businesses was at least encouraging. Governor Romney is quoted as follows: "Are we going to stay ahead of the world, are we going to lead the world, or are we going to instead pull up the drawbridge and try to hang on to everything we've got and say we can't compete with the world" -- language reflective of arguments made elsewhere in this blog.
Given the critical importance of global trade to international relations and security and its increasing impact on our own economy, it is both a bit surprising and more than a little disappointing that none of the candidates are willing to address the issue head-on on their official websites other than the somewhat round about indicators on Ms. Clinton's and Mr. Romney's sites. One would surmise that if the candidates truly believed some of the rhetoric that they use to pander to the protectionist rank and file, they would have no qualms about heralding those positions. One possible explanation is that being leaders, they in fact recognize that global trade and engagement are real, inevitable and necessary, but rather than antagonize their party base they have decided the better part of political valor is to say nothing at all and hope no one probes too deeply on the question.
Given the paucity of clear positions on their official sites, we can examine their records on the issue. With respect to voting records, unfortunately Mssrs. Romney and Huckabee (also pretty well out of it at this point), having been state governors but never having held a national office with responsibility for foreign trade issues, do not have any easily identifiable record. I have not taken the time to this point to investigate with any state trade officials in Massachusetts or Arkansas what positions if any they took on trade related issues as governors.
From his public remarks, one would have to sum up Mr. Huckabees expressed positions as a bit out in left field. On the one hand he expressed a pastor's compassion for immigrant families, but on trade itself, he has advocated the use of trade sanctions against countries in the Islamic world as retribution for what he sees as their discrimination against Christians. Somehow further escalating tensions in the middle east and Asia by imposing faith-based and religiously motivated trade sanctions sounds like a step in a very scary direction. The fact that it looks like we won't really have to answer for that is probably a good thing.
On the other hand, Senator McCain -- the "presumptive" nominee for the Republicans -- has the longest national public record of any of the candidates and therefore has established perhaps the most definitive positions on trade. If one is pro international trade, McCain has a record to be admired. According to OnTheIssues.org, the Senator has a near perfect voting record in supporting free trade agreements including NAFTA and even the recently defeated CAFTA. Last October he gave a speech making the point that "every time the U.S. went protectionist, we paid a heavy price." Just this month he gave a speech calling for a continued reduction in barriers to free trade, recognizing that "globalization is an opportunity."
Of the 3 U.S. Senators in the race, Barack Obama has the shortest tenure and therefore a somewhat truncated voting record. He was firmly against CAFTA. Although he wasn't around to vote on it, he has made it repeatedly clear that he thinks NAFTA should be reopened and amended to provide more protectionist labor provisions. In his one departure from a fairly consistent anti-free trade record, he voted in favor of a free trade agreement with Oman. I'm not sufficiently familiar with the provisions of that agreement to understand what it was that distinguished that agreement from other FTA's in the Senator's mind, but at least it does indicate that he's not anti free trade all the time under all circumstances.
If I had completed this post closer to when I started it, I would have suggested that Hillary Clinton was the most pro free trade of the Democratic contenders including those that have dropped by the wayside. In addition to the general comments cited from her campaign website above, although she voted against CAFTA, she has voted in favor of quite a few other free trade initiatives including most favored nations status for China, normal trade relations status for Vietnam, free trade agreements with Singapore and Chile, and the removal of many common goods from export restrictions.
Unfortunately, now that she has been forced to fight for survival in the remaining big primaries, she has had to veer back towards the partisan extremes that drive political debate leading up to a party's nomination, and in the case of Democratic activists in an industrial state like Ohio, that apparently means NAFTA bashing. Although Ms. Clinton applauded NAFTA when her husband championed it during his presidency, and despite the fact that it is probably the single most important free trade initiative ever undertaken by the U.S., she now not only professes to be against it, but seems to feel the need to express shame and remorse for ever having supported it. At the risk of saying too much, I like Ms. Clinton and think she would make a very good president, and I can think of numerous reasons why it's just plain time to have a woman president, but I do find the backsliding on NAFTA to be disheartening.
So to sum it all up, although Republicans as a group have become increasingly isolationist and protectionist, the party's apparent nominee seems to be very much a free trader, and is willing to go even further in staking out what I think is a sensible but apparently unpopular stance on immigration as well. Among the Democrats, their records would suggest that Ms. Clinton has a more favorable view of international trade than Mr. Obama, though their pitched battle for the nomination is forcing both of them to skew their rhetoric to play to the protectionists in the labor movement bloc of the party.
Fortunately, each of the 3 remaining serious candidates seem to be bright worldly people. I have to believe that whatever they may say in the nominating process to appeal to their party's extremes, when faced with the responsibility of leading the free world, they will recognize the benefits to the US of being fully engaged in international commerce and global competition.