Be wary of protectionist push
President Bush was out banging the free-trade drum this month, seeking support for pacts with Colombia, Panama, Peru and South Korea. But just as Bush was extolling the virtues of open trade, his fellow Republicans showed they were starting to sour on the subject.
A major Wall Street Journal poll indicated that, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Republican voters think free trade has hurt America's bottom line. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed agreed with the statement: "Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products."
That's a sea change among GOP voters, who've traditionally embraced globalization.
Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill are increasingly refusing to toe the Bush administration's line. Some have warmed to Democrats' demands that the Latin American deals include labor and environmental protections, and some have joined Democrats in supporting strict import safety measures, such as mandatory inspections and fines for companies that sell unsafe products.
This trade malaise is not surprising given the news that 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost during Bush's tenure, and given recent headlines about poisonous food and toy imports from China — a nation with which the U.S. had a $233 billion trade deficit last year, a record the U.S. likely will surpass in 2007. While these numbers tell only a tiny sliver of the trade story, it's a simple formula: Americans see jobs going abroad at the same time they see substandard stuff flowing in. They need look no further than their own homes, where it can be all but impossible anymore to find products stamped "Made in the USA."
This newspaper has long championed free trade, but you also have to be pragmatic about public sentiment. To turn the drumbeat against reactive protectionism, which is fraught with its own negatives, the White House should do more to address critics' concerns. Ensuring greater fairness and safety in trade should be at the top of that list.