Race to the Bottom? The Presidential Candidates’ Positions on Trade

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In recent weeks the economy has been in the headlines and in thesights of politicians seeking the presidency. Particularly on theDemocratic side, the candidates have sought to paint a picture of adoom‐​and‐​gloom economy and a convenient culprit: the trade policiesof the Bush administration.

Although Sen. John McCain has largely stuck to his free‐​tradeprinciples, even when it might have been politically expedient toappeal to voters’ worst instincts, Sens. Hillary Clinton and BarackObama have entered into a seemingly escalating war of words overthe alleged damage done by trade liberalization. As news about theeconomy worsened and crucial primary contests in industrial statessuch as Ohio and Pennsylvania approached, the rhetoric reached anadir.

As voters consider the mix of policy offerings by thecandidates, a look at their records on trade during their time inCongress and their statements during the campaign can give someearly guidance as to the direction of the next administration’strade policy. Although trade votes are a necessarily imperfectyardstick with which to measure future policy‐​packaged as theyoften are with other, sometimes contradictory, legislation‐​theyseem to be consistent with the campaign pledges of thecandidates.

Voters could expect a President Mc‐​Cain to promote freer tradeand cuts in market‐​distorting subsidies, and a President Clinton ora President Obama to view free trade between voluntary actors assomething to be restrained, loaded with conditions, orcounterbalanced by an expansion of the welfare state.