Democrats Turn on Trade in Desperation

In the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, Republican candidates for Congress tried to save their bacon by running against immigration. In 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal this morning, a number of Democrats are trying to save their seats by running against trade. I predict the Democratic tactic will be as fruitless as the Republican effort before it.

Democratic incumbents have been running TV ads accusing their Republican challengers of favoring trade agreements, outsourcing, and tax breaks for U.S. companies that invest abroad. The charges are wrong on substance, as I address at length in my 2009 Cato book Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, but running against trade has not proven to be a vote getter, either.

It is difficult to find a presidential or congressional election anywhere that has turned on trade. While most voters have an opinion on trade, the issue tends to rank down the list of top concerns, far behind the economy, jobs, and, in this election cycle, government spending and debt.

Demonizing trade is an especially odd campaign tactic in 2010. The recession of 2008-09 was not caused by trade, but by the bursting of the housing bubble. As the economy slowly recovers, trade has been one of the bright spots, with a healthy increase in exports fueling a revival of the closely watched manufacturing sector, as my Cato colleague Dan Ikenson blogged a few days ago.

Democrats running against trade should remember that the “Clinton economy” of the 1990s that they often speak nostalgically of restoring was built in significant part on the passage of major trade agreements and a robust expansion of trade.