The 1996 presidential campaign rolls on toward the August nominating conventions of both major parties. It looks increasingly as if the Republicans and Democrats both will have free-trade candidates President Clinton for the Democrats and Sen. Robert Dole for the Republicans.
That wasn’t the scenario a month ago after Patrick Buchanan stunned the front-running Dole machine with a victory in the New Hampshire primary. Buchanan’s not a free-trader. He capitalized on his long-standing opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and to anything else he perceives as giving ground in the worldwide marketplace. Many in his own party believes he plays to the fear of losing jobs to foreign competition, fair or not.
Today, however, Buchanan’s reduced to an oppsoing voice »some would say a shrill opposing voice) rather than a candidate given serious chances.
Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution, a venerable Wasbhington think tank, offers some insight into the failure of trade as an issue in recent presidential political history.
Nivola turns pages back to 1980, when former California Gov. Ronald Reagan faced former Texas Gov. John Connally in the South Carolina primary. Connally firred the South Carolina primary campaign with hot words about the Japanese being prepared to sit in their Datsuns on their docks in Yokahoma if markets weren’t opend to Americna goods. Reagan won in a landslide. That was the year Connally spent $12 million to win one delegate.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale tried in 1984 top use the trade issue, Nivoal writes, and ened up with 13 electoral votes to 525 for free-trader Reagan. Nivola also cites the similar bad fortune to protectionists (people who want to protect American products through import tariffs and other restrictive measures) Richard Gephardt, a Denmocrat, and Pat Robertson, a Republican. Nivola also cites Buchanan’s 1992 candidacy and its protectionist promises (Nivola did not mention that Buchanan’s ownership of a foreign automobile was cited by his opponents).
The reason trade issues don’t generate the kind of voter commitment at the ballot box reflecting the cheers at campaing rallies is in simple arithmetic, Nivola writes.
“Almost 90 percent of the goods and services consumer by American are still produced by Americans. … And though some imports generate competitive heat, the vast majority of Americans scarcely break a sweat … As rational voters and grown-ups, they have worse things to worry about. End of story.”
Dole and Clinton probably both understand and agree with Nivola’sd reasoning and grasp of history. Free trade isn’t a monster to fear. It is a competitive challenge to be met and overcome. That’s the core of strength in our nation’s economy.