Pandering to the Protectionists

Given the audience, one could have expected a goodly amount of protectionist rhetoric from the Democratic presidential candidates in their debate last night at an AFL-CIO forum. But at times it seemed as though they were battling to see who among them could pander the most.

Dennis Kucinich has never been a promoter of open trade and markets, so it is hardly surprising that he said withdrawing from NAFTA and the WTO would be a “first week in office” priority. Thank goodness he’s not a serious candidate. What is worrisome is the cheers his pledge elicited. Do the members of the AFL-CIO truly believe that if two of our largest trade partners (Canada and Mexico) increased their tariffs on American goods, that would somehow benefit them? Is the WTO seen as such a negative force overall that withdrawing from its forums and its legal protections is perceived as wise?

The other candidates, to their credit, did not match Mr Kucinich’s pledge. But that is to damn them with faint praise, however, as most of them did undertake to “revise” trade agreements, including NAFTA, (presumably by putting in more stringent rules on labor and environmental provisions) and to put more emphasis on enforcement of trade agreements. None of them, not even Senator Clinton, whose husband showed a commendable commitment to trade during his time in office, stood up and defended the benefits of trade.

Senator Obama, given the chance to acknowledge the positive effect of trade on working families – i.e., cheap goods – demurred, making an emotive, if economically illiterate, point about how a cheap T-shirt is useless if one doesn’t have a job. As though the U.S. economy was not demonstrating that consumers can have access to cheaper goods as well as record employment.

Perhaps the next Democratic presidential candidates debate should be held at a consumer- or taxpayer-group forum.