Democratic and Republican Shifts with Regard to Free Trade

I have observed before that this is the first election in which a major party candidate has “come out” in support of gay marriage. But watching last night’s debate, I sensed another area in which it was different: each candidate is seemingly trying to be more anti-free trade than the other. The Obama campaign has relentlessly accused Mitt Romney of outsourcing jobs overseas, while Romney has attacked Obama for failing to impose tariffs on products from China. The Democratic and Republican parties have both gone through shifts on “free trade.” When it was originally established, the Republican Party was clearly more protectionist than the Democratic Party. To fully understand this, we have to look at the GOP’s origins. A major aspect of the Republican Party’s platform was opposition to the expansion of slavery. However, two political parties—the Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party—had previously been organized with antislavery platforms. The Liberty Party had been fairly explicit about its abolitionist, anti-racist sympathies and, not surprisingly, had crashed and burned. The Free Soil Party had carefully avoided calling for universal emancipation and indulged in racism that, while mild for the era, was still rather blatant. It too had crashed and burned. The powerbrokers in the 1850s Republican Party knew that they had to use a variety of issues, including slavery, to create a party that would represent Northern interests and become dominant above the Mason-Dixon line. One of these issues was tariffs. I am almost hesitant to raise this issue, because many people claim that Northern Republicans’ support for tariffs per se caused the South to secede. This is not the case. The South seceded over slavery. Tariffs did play a role in the sense that some plantation owners feared that the tariff could spell the doom of slavery by lowering the economic value of slave labor products. But the idea that tariffs as an issue separate from slavery played any significant role in causing the South to secede is simply not supported by the facts. At any rate, in antebellum America, Southern merchants had two options for trading their agricultural products. They could trade with Northern businessmen, or they could trade with European nations. Northern businessmen, not surprisingly, wanted to corner the market on Southern agricultural products and prevent the South from trading with Europe. One method of accomplishing this goal was tariffs. A few years before the Republican Party was formed, some Northern politicians had been rumored to have voted for protections of slavery in the Compromise of 1850 in exchange for Southern support of tariffs. So a key policy of the Republican Party became enacting tariffs to cut down on foreign trade. Following the policy of earlier Democrats such as Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, the Democratic Party was less supportive of tariffs throughout the 1800s. Looking at the case of William Jennings Bryan, the man who was the Democratic Party nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908 is instructive. Bryan was a populist based in Nebraska and originally from Illinois. His primary constituency was white, rural, and low income. In this day and age, one would expect him to be exactly the kind of Democrat who would rail against free trade. Yet Bryan was adamantly opposed to tariffs. In 1930, Republican Herbert Hoover signed a protectionist bill drastically raising tariffs. Contrast this with FDR, who generally favored free trade. In the early 1990s, we saw a strange form of bipartisanship: both major party candidates in the 1992 presidential election, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, favored the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.) And when it came time to vote on NAFTA in the House and Senate, the bill had both bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition. In the House, both liberals like Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi and conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Bob Dornan voted in favor of it. Liberal and left-wing representatives such as Bernie Sanders and John Lewis voted against it, as did conservatives such as Roscoe Bartlett and Jim Inhofe. A similar trend could be observed in the Senate. Trent Lott and Ted Kennedy both voted for NAFTA, while Larry Craig and Russ Feingold both voted against it. Outside of government, Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan, united by little else besides anti-Semitism, opposed NAFTA. In a 1996 book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, liberal pundit and future Senator, Al Franken, mocked Buchanan for opposing NAFTA. In Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American, left-wing film director, Michael Moore, took a hard line against NAFTA.Yet in spite of some anti-free trade sentiment sprinkled across the political spectrum, the Democratic and Republican parties were dominated by pro-free traders during the ‘90s and early 2000s. Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry all favored NAFTA. Similar to George H.W. Bush, 1996 Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, had been heavily involved in promoting NAFTA while serving in the Senate. George W. Bush took the free trade policies of the previous two presidents further by favoring the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA.) Presidential candidates who opposed free trade were third party challengers like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama vacillated between pro and anti-free trade positions but spoke in support of modifying NAFTA and repealing CAFTA. John McCain, who was significantly more supportive of free trade, compared Barack Obama to Republican Herbert Hoover. In this election, however, the days of the Clinton and Bush years in which both candidates spoke warmly of free trade are a hazy memory. Bill Clinton’s DNC speech last month clocked in at a staggering forty-eight minutes, and not once did he say a word about NAFTA, one of the centerpieces of his administration. Had he done so, he might well have been booed off of the stage, as one of the major themes of the convention was the evils of outsourcing jobs via free trade. While Mitt Romney will not be following in the footsteps of Old Abe when it comes to civil rights, speaking softly and carrying a big stick in foreign policy (something our sixteenth president actually did better than Teddy Roosevelt), or open immigration, one thinks Lincoln might derive some satisfaction from watching Romney try to outdo Obama in terms of support for protective tariffs.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Democratic and Republican Shifts with Regard to Free Trade

  1. Ed Boyd

    Very interesting and thought provoking. Ross Perot would also be proud of Mitt and Barak. As a third party candidate he predicted the USA would hear a large sucking sound as jobs left the country due to NAFTA.

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