Donald Trump has made international trade a signature issue, his triumvirate being immigration, trade, and national/personal security. Does the Republican Party platform’s section on trade reflect Trump’s views?
The answer is — not really. While the platform is something of a departure from the unabashed free trade ideology of previous years, it mirrors Trump’s thinking only in some respects, and contains plenty of the free trade boosterism he is campaigning against.
Trump and his supporters on the trade issue can’t afford to let their guard down for a minute or they will find themselves co-opted by the Establishment, and the opportunity to achieve their trade objectives will have been squandered.
Admittedly, party platforms are written, fought over, and then ignored in the general election campaign. However, Trump and his supporters should be wary of the platform’s trade language because it reflects a successful rearguard action by traditional free trade Republicans, allowing them plenty of say and sway on trade issues.
The platform opens with a gushing homage to free trade, saying it is “crucial for all sectors of the American economy.” That’s a typical free trade assertion — but a highly debatable point. Just ask any Trump supporter from a burned-out town or city in Middle America.
And the platform follows up by envisioning a “worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets, what has been called a ‘Reagan Economic Zone,’ in which free trade will truly be fair trade for all concerned.” Talk about free trade cheerleading. Isn’t this what Trump is fighting against — precisely because it doesn’t work in the very real, every-country-for-itself jungle of international commerce?
More important, guess who originally called for the creation of a worldwide, multilateral free trade zone, wrapped for effect in the name of the Republicans’ beloved 40th president? “Loser and choke artist” Mitt Romney!
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How is it possible that the ghost of Mitt informs the trade section of what is supposed to be Trump’s platform? Note the clever use of passive voice in the platform’s language to avoid revealing that the “Reagan Economic Zone” is one of 59 proposals contained in Romney’s 2011 campaign document “Believe in America: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Jobs and Growth.” The Romney position paper states, “As president, Mitt Romney will pursue the formation of a ‘Reagan Economic Zone.’ This zone would codify the principles of free trade at the international level.”
Does this sound like the approach that Donald Trump has been pushing for the last year? Hardly. Trump won the nomination by speaking out against multilateral trade deals and our current head-in-the-sand approach — which has led to the hollowing out of vast areas of our country and very real suffering on the part of millions of our countrymen.
Trump is clearly on the record as favoring bilateral agreements instead, which he correctly believes are fairer, more transparent, and easier to enforce. So chalk up a big victory for the traditional Republican free-traders. Mitt must have had a good laugh when the Republican convention adopted a platform containing one of his big free trade ideas.
The platform then doubles down on free trade talking points in the next paragraph by stating, “When trade agreements have been carefully negotiated with friendly democracies, they have resulted in millions of new jobs here at home supported by our exports.” This is another dreamy-eyed ideological claim, not backed up by facts or statistics.
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First, the very same trade negotiators whom Trump has repeatedly called “stupid” have negotiated all our trade deals. It is nonsense to claim that the trade deals that have produced surpluses were negotiated more carefully than those that produced deficits — or by different, smarter people. No, they all work for or under the auspices of the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office.
Second, the blanket assertion that free trade deals with friendly democracies work to our advantage is simply not true. Some of these deals have resulted in U.S. trade surpluses, and thus positive net exports and job creation. Others, such as those with Mexico, Canada, Israel, Nicaragua, and South Korea, have resulted in substantial US trade deficits, meaning negative net exports and job losses. The platform’s false but sweeping claim — that free trade agreements with democratic countries automatically produce net income, jobs, and growth — was widely repeated on the House floor by then-Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan and other dyed-in-the-wool free-traders during last year’s fight over trade promotion authority. It is cause for concern that these free trade Republicans, supposedly vanquished by Trump, have been successful in inserting their fantasies into the Republican platform despite Trump’s trade stance.
At this point, the platform document, following Trump’s lead, condemns foreign nations that keep their markets closed to U.S. goods while ours remains open to theirs, that manipulate their currencies, and that steal U.S. intellectual property, singling out China — but failing to even mention Japan, Germany, Taiwan, and Korea, which, in addition to China, were placed on a new (April 2016) U.S. Treasury Monitoring List for currency manipulators. These countries, and a number of others, are trade cheaters but did not receive specific mention in a document that ought to demonstrate the toughness and comprehensiveness of Trump’s trade position.
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The platform then rejects poorly negotiated trade agreements in general, but doesn’t single any out by name — not even the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump has called the worst trade deal ever negotiated. Does the platform, as Trump has, call for its renegotiation? No.
The final paragraph of the trade section contains another free trade riff: “We look to broaden our trade agreements with countries which share our values and commitment to fairness.” But where are those countries? In fact, they don’t exist. We run trade deficits with almost all our trading partners, including those that share our values. As Trump has rightly pointed out, “We lose with everybody.”
In closing, the platform does not outright condemn the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral trade deal that Trump has roundly criticized. Apparently the free trade forces have struck again. Rather, in the slightest of nods to Trump’s fierce opposition to TPP, the platform states, “Significant trade agreements should not be rushed or undertaken in a lame-duck Congress.” Rather than reflecting its nominee’s outspoken opposition to TPP, this weak formulation, which appears to be an afterthought, presumably leaves open the door for consideration of the TPP when the new Congress convenes in January. This anodyne statement should profoundly worry Trump supporters rather than cheer them.
During the Democratic platform deliberations, there was a sustained argument about whether to condemn by name the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Several amendments directly calling out TPP were offered by supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders but were ultimately voted down by Hillary supporters — presumably to give her an opportunity to flip-flop should she win the election and decide to ‘unoppose’ the TPP in a bow to her multinational and Wall Street backers.
Democratic bloggers expressed concern at the time that the absence of a specific TPP condemnation would create an opening for Trump to draw a big distinction on trade between Hillary and himself. They needn’t have worried. Republican free-traders on the platform committee let Hillary off the hook.
In spite of all the talking-head commentary and handwringing that Trump has banished free trade from the Republican Party’s lexicon, it just ain’t so. Not only is the Republican platform a case in point, but so is the selection of free-trader Gov. Mike Pence as VP candidate. Pence soft-pedaled his lifelong free trade position during the recent 60 Minutes interview: “What … I hear Donald Trump saying is let’s … look at these trade agreements and reconsider them and renegotiate them.” Pence shows no indication of an about-face on trade (as did Newt Gingrich) or an understanding of the damage it has wrought to the American middle and working classes.
The bottom line is this: The Establishment is called the Establishment for a reason. It is able to resist changes to its positions by exerting inordinate, multifaceted, and sustained pressure until it gets it way.
Establishment members have not “seen the light” and abandoned their free trade goals because Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. However, they realize they must go about achieving them in less direct ways. The Republican (and Democratic) Party platform reveals a glimpse of their patient, stealthy methodology. Trump and his supporters on the trade issue can’t afford to let their guard down for a minute or they will find themselves co-opted by the Establishment, and the opportunity to achieve their trade objectives will have been squandered.
Kevin Kearns is the President of the U.S. Business & Industry Council.