McCain Scores, Romney Punts on Trade Policy

Free trade has come under withering fire during this election season, with Lou Dobbs–style populism on the rise. The Democratic candidates have fallen over themselves to criticize NAFTA, trade with China, and the alleged harm trade has done to the U.S. economy. So it was refreshing this morning to read an unapologetic endorsement of trade expansion from one of the Republican presidential campaigns.

In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, one of Sen. John McCain’s senior policy advisers, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, offered this description of what kind of trade policy the Arizona Republican would pursue as president:

Mr. McCain will re-affirm American leadership in global trade. It is essential that American workers have access to the 95% of the world’s customers that are outside our borders. The U.S. should engage in multilateral, regional and bilateral efforts to reduce barriers to trade, level the global playing field and build effective enforcement of global trading rules. Opening new markets for trade in goods and services is an indispensable aspect of economic freedom, for entrepreneurs and workers, and a proven road to greater prosperity.

As a student of history, Mr. McCain rejects those who preach the false virtues of economic isolationism — those who urge the U.S. to bury its head in the sand. The world made the grave error of building walls against trade 75 years ago, which contributed to the Great Depression. Since then, the U.S. has been in the forefront of the fight for reduced barriers to trade. It has reaped the benefits of sustained growth in standards of living, an awesome display of innovation and technical advance, an explosion in the variety, quality and affordability of consumer goods, a rise in home ownership, and ascendancy to the position of world’s greatest economy.

Well said. Note that McCain’s adviser even touts the consumer benefits of import competition through more variety and quality and lower prices. Politicians almost never seem to care about whether consumers benefit from trade policy, preferring to carry water for the noisiest producers complaining about pesky foreign competition.

In contrast, a nearby op-ed by a supporter of Mitt Romney devoted only one sentence to trade, and the line was more ominous than optimistic: “Our jobs are being sought by new competitors from nations like China and India.”

That sentence on trade was sandwiched between a grim warning about “violent, radical jihadists” and our government’s spending binge — as though imported shoes and laptops from China and tech-support call centers in India were “challenges” to our nation on a par with al Qaeda and out-of-control federal spending.

My Cato colleague Mike Tanner has thoughtfully dissected the strengths and weaknesses of both McCain and Romney elsewhere on the Cato blog, but on trade policy, McCain’s team was the clear winner in today’s skirmish.