Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Umm, Yeah, About that Protectionist Campaign Platform...

So I've been on vacation for a few days.  Did I miss anything important?  (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that yesterday's election results were met with a few late-night fist-pumps from your humble correspondent.  For more than a year now, I've publicly lamented and exposed many American politicians' trite, moronic and/or just-plain-false campaign tactics based on trade protectionism.  And when the Democratic Party decided that a cavalcade of anti-trade myths would become a key component of their 2010 arsenal, I was loudly rooting for abject failure because if, as I said about six weeks ago, the "Democrats' broader protectionist plans go down in flames" it could dramatically undermine the "conventional wisdom" that anti-trade myth-peddling is a surefire political winner and that supporting free trade is political poison.

And after last night's results, I'd say that more than a few "free trade fist-pumps" are warranted.

First, the Chamber's John Murphy provides us with a nice little scoreboard of last night's results (and takes a well-deserved swipe at the protectionists over at Public Citizen):
Some candidates, mostly Democrats, tried to win votes by tapping into anxiety about trade with China, "offshoring," and trade agreements. The anti-trade activists at Public Citizen recently contended that "[v]irtually every Democrat in a tough race has at least one paid television ad attacking offshoring, and many propose changes to the tax system to combat it."

It didn’t work. Public Citizen identified 36 new "fair trade" House members in a report issued after the 2008 election.... The activist group argued that opposition to free trade agreements played an important role in their election.

And yet 20 of those 36 House members were defeated on November 2. Fourteen were re-elected (four of whom are Republicans), and two are locked in races that are too close to call as of 10:00am on November 3... Other outspoken opponents of trade agreements such as Phil Hare, Zack Space, and Joe Sestak lost.
Murphy provides a handy tally of the protectionist losers here.  (Feel free to take a moment to click-and-gloat.  I know I sure did.)  Cato's Dan Griswold then helpfully explains that several self-avowed free traders also had a good night last night:
Republicans Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, and Mark Kirk all won Senate seats in the industrial heartland yesterday (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, respectively) and all three voted in favor of major trade agreements during their time in the U.S. House. None of them ran away from their records on trade.
The Portman victory is especially sweet, considering that (i) he was a former US Trade Representative during the heyday of G.W. Bush's trade expansion efforts, (ii) he was elected in the very trade-skeptical state of Ohio (home of uber-protectionist Sherrod Brown); (iii) his opponent Lee Fisher ran a zillion ads criticizing (often falsely) Portman for his free trade positions; and (iv) he still won by a whopping 18 percentage points!


Another protectionist loser not reported above was Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) - an 11-term congressman who routinely sponsored legislation to withdraw the United States from NAFTA and inadvertently began my "protectionist campaigning for dummies series" when his staffer anonymously challenged me to a blog-fight after I derided the aforementioned protectionist legislation.  (Oops!)  And incumbent Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) also got blown-out despite laughably accusing challenger Ron Johnson of supporting "unfair trade deals" and - heaven forbid! - "creative destruction."

The quick take from these results and a few others is pretty simple, I think: rampant protectionism proved to be a pretty bad strategy for political victory last night, and being a free trader wasn't an automatic recipe for failure either.  And I think it's safe to say that the conventional political wisdom on trade deserves to finally be put out of its misery, wouldn't you?

Granted, last night wasn't perfect.  For example, one of my favorite challengers - unapologetic free trade Republican Jason Levesque up in Maine - lost to the House's top protectionist, Mike Michaud.  So, being a free trader also isn't some sort of magical path to electoral success, either.

But hey, Murphy, Griswold and I have never, ever claimed that it would be, or that being a protectionist - however misguided and ethically, umm, ambiguous that position might be - automatically doomed an ambitious pol to failure.  Instead, we've been merely trying to say that protectionism ain't the super-effective political strategy that the DNC's braintrust (and Public Citizen's professional anti-traders) swore up-and-down that it would be.

The data from 2010 prove our point quite nicely.  So, hey, here's a crazy idea: maybe it's time we stopped spending tens of millions of dollars every two years to propagate protectionist myths for (increasingly disproven) political gain, and instead had a real debate about the issues - one based on facts rather than fear and reallllly bad "conventional wisdom."

(Sorry, Public Citizen.)

(And protectionist politicians.)

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