Grand Old Protectionists

Today’s NYT op-ed column calling for a revival of conservative protectionism is frustrating for numerous reasons.

Free trade has long been popular with liberals, and it remains so with liberal elites today. The editorial pages of major newspapers consistently support free trade. Ted Kennedy supported the advance of free trade.

It’s been popular with elite liberals. When was it popular with the liberal base? And are elite liberals not to be trusted by conservatives, regardless of the merits of the issue? When the elites disagree with the populist base, shouldn’t that increase their credibility in the eyes of those conservatives who dislike the liberal populists?

And Kennedy?

* Voted NO on free trade agreement with Oman. (Jun 2006)

* Voted NO on implementing CAFTA for Central America free-trade. (Jul 2005)

* Voted NO on establishing free trade between US & Singapore. (Jul 2003)

* Voted NO on establishing free trade between the US and Chile. (Jul 2003)

* Voted NO on extending free trade to Andean nations. (May 2002)

* Voted YES on granting normal trade relations status to Vietnam. (Oct 2001)

* Voted YES on removing common goods from national security export rules. (Sep 2001)

* Voted YES on permanent normal trade relations with China. (Sep 2000)

* Voted NO on expanding trade to the third world. (May 2000)

* Voted NO on renewing ‘fast track’ presidential trade authority. (Nov 1997)

* Voted YES on imposing trade sanctions on Japan for closed market. (May 1995)

I doubt those 2001 – 2006 votes against PTAs were driven by a strong conviction that free trade must be non-discriminatory.

Back to Robert Lighthizer in the NYT:

President Reagan often broke with free-trade dogma. He arranged for voluntary restraint agreements to limit imports of automobiles and steel (an industry whose interests, by the way, I have represented). He provided temporary import relief for Harley-Davidson. He limited imports of sugar and textiles. His administration pushed for the “Plaza accord” of 1985, an agreement that made Japanese imports more expensive by raising the value of the yen.

Each of these measures prompted vociferous criticism from free traders. But they worked. By the early 1990s, doubts about Americans’ ability to compete had been impressively reduced.

Yes, American sugar and textiles have been competitive ever since. That’s why those import barriers were pragmatic temporary measures, as opposed to the “ivory tower” “utopian dreams of free traders.” It’s a down-to-earth conservative principle to hand out welfare to big corporations and influential lobbies for decades rather than letting competitive market pressures determine economic outcomes.

My only consolation is that I don’t think Mr Lighthizer’s views are representative of most Republicans’.

Addendum: Obviously the rest of the column is equally ridiculous, but I’m short on time, so let’s divide up the labor burden by letting Dan Drezner tackle VERs and the Plaza accord.