Was Bill Clinton Also an “Extremist” on Trade?

This has not been a good week for the national Democratic Party. Along with losing the Massachusetts Senate seat, the party took another step toward making hostility to trade liberalization a plank of party orthodoxy.

As my Cato colleague Sallie James flagged earlier today, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a press release yesterday criticizing a Republican candidate in upstate New York for contributing to the Cato Institute. And, of course, everyone knows that Cato is “a right wing extremist group that has long been a vocal advocate for extremist, unfair trade policies that would allow companies to ship American jobs overseas.”

Among our sins, in the eyes of the DCCC, is that Cato research has supported tariff-reducing trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Our work has also advocated unilateral trade liberalization—getting rid of self-damaging U.S. trade barriers regardless of what other countries do—which violates the conventional Washington wisdom that we can’t lower our own barriers without demanding “reciprocity” and “a level playing field” from other nations

There is nothing extreme about our work on trade. It fits comfortably within mainstream economics expounded not only by Adam Smith and Milton Freidman but by such liberals as Paul Samuelson and Larry Summers.

In fact, for decades, the Democratic Party embraced lower barriers to trade:

  • In the 1930s and ’40s, President Franklin Roosevelt and his Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Secretary of State Cordell Hull lead the United States away from the disastrous protectionism of President Hoover and a Republican Congress.
  • Democratic Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter all supported successful agreements in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to reduce trade barriers at home and abroad.
  • Bill Clinton, the only Democrat to be re-elected president since FDR, persuaded a Democratic Congress to enact NAFTA in 1993 and the Uruguay Round Agreements Act in 1994, which created the World Trade Organization. Clinton also championed permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000, which ushered that nation into the WTO.
  • In the previous Congress, scores of House Democrats co-sponsored “The Affordable Footwear Act,” which would have unilaterally lowered tariffs on imported shoes popular with low-income Americans. Liberal Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon visited the Cato Institute in July 2008 to speak in favor of the bill. (Will he be the next target of a DCCC press release for cavorting with “extremists”?) In the current Congress, a similar bill in the Senate is currently co-sponsored by such prominent Democrats as Dick Durban (Ill.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), and Mary Landrieu (La.).

To learn more about why Democrats (and Republicans) should support free trade, I highly recommend two books: Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, by yours truly; and Freedom From Want: Liberalism and the Global Economy, by Edward Gresser, a trade expert with the Democratic Leadership Council.