Why do the most rabid protectionists always kick off their tirades by insisting that they really do support trade? Of course, there’s always a qualifier. They merely require that any trade deal — insert an appropriately amorphous or unattainable goal here — “is fair,” “guarantees workers rights,” “lowers the trade deficit,” “promotes democracy,” or cures the common cold. Admittedly, neither Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions nor Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have yet used that last excuse, but you get the point.
It’s not as if resistance to international trade represents some new or progressive concept. The same sentiments fueling opposition to the trade measures before Congress today stoked the fires of opposition to trade with Japan in the 1980s, with Canada and Mexico under NAFTA in the 1990s, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000. For that matter, debates about import tariffs dominated national politics throughout the 1830s and ’40s.
Yet throughout it all, one inevitable, irresistible, economic fact remains: With or without the United States of America, the volume of global trade will continue to increase — steadily and relentlessly — as it has for hundreds of years. For all the talk about tariffs, workers rights, and catfish labeling, at the end of the day trade is about consumers buying things they desire: Japanese buying Kentucky bourbon or Boeing Aircraft, Americans purchasing rugs made in Pakistan, or Italian shoes.
People want what they want, and trade works for them. It works for American consumers by providing access to less expensive goods; it makes the American economy more efficient by attracting capital to our most productive areas; and it gives American companies better access to overseas markets by reducing trade barriers.
Presidential Trade Promotion Authority, passed by the Senate last week and to be taken up by the House in June, is simply about leverage. Ironically, trade opponents reject “fast-track” for the same reason advocates embrace it: TPA will make it easier for the president to negotiate complex trade deals. To be sure, TPA cannot prevent the president from negotiating a bad deal — nothing can. That’s why Congress will (and should) always hold the right to reject any proposal.
Clearly that does not satisfy antitrade activists who have always found it easy to rally isolationist emotions with stories of worker dislocations or objectionable trade barriers. In truth, however, domestic competition displaces far more workers than global competition; and manufacturing production has more than doubled since 1975. Global trade growth isn’t a trend, it’s a fact of life. Ignoring this cedes economic leadership and invites the rest of the world to forge agreements that set terms of trade and investment without us.
And as the Democrats’ “antitrade left wing” undermines President Obama’s agenda, Republicans are left to pick up the pieces. Leaders like Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House have supported TPA for Democrat and Republican presidents alike. This is particularly instructive for those who have spent the past six years blaming “Republican partisanship” for the gridlock in Washington.
For his part, Obama hasn’t done much to help the cause. His penchant for secrecy only reinforces frustrations with the administration’s failure to share details of a Pacific trade agreement in the works. Such specifics are rarely disclosed publicly before deals are finalized, but it creates an easy rallying point for critics. Nor has his rhetoric been well suited to the moment. Obama was right to declare Warren was “wrong on this.” But by suggesting opponents were simply driven by politics, he called their motives into question — a cardinal mistake in politics (though, ironically, one that Warren makes all the time).
In the end, Sessions and Warren will vote no, TPA will pass the Senate, and Paul Ryan will save Obama’s agenda in the House. What was that saying about strange bedfellows?
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.