- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

World trade is poised to be the sleeper issue in this year's presidential and congressional elections.
The top Republican and Democratic presidential candidates say they support free trade, when they talk about it at all. So far the issue has taken a back seat to issues like education, health care and taxes.
But a third-party candidate, like Pat Buchanan, could ignite public opposition to trade and elevate it into an issue that affects the close contest for control of the House, analysts say.
"International trade could be a very significant issue this year," said John Zogby of Zogby International, a New York polling firm. Most Americans for years have believed "trade hurts more than it helps," he said.
The lack of debate on trade in the presidential elections has combined with public contentment arising from the robust economy to keep it from being an issue, analysts said.
But that could change if a third-party candidate emerges who can exploit latent public discontent with trade and foreign competition and capitalize on the public's willingness to use trade as a tool to punish wayward regimes, analysts say.
The candidate most commonly cited is commentator Pat Buchanan, who recently joined the independent Reform Party in a quest for its presidential nomination.
Recent Zogby polls show the Seattle protests in December against world trade turned the public's vague antipathy toward the issue into a potentially "high intensity" one that Mr. Buchanan or another well-known trade opponent, like Ralph Nader, could use to stage a successful third-party candidacy.
"Pat Buchanan could be a right-wing Republican and a left-wing Democrat at the same time on this issue," attracting a significant number of disaffected voters from hard-core trade opponents within each party, Mr. Zogby said.
"I don't know if it's a winning issue or not," he added, "but a third-party candidate doesn't have to win. All he has to do is shake things up and cause one side or the other to lose the election. That's the role of a third-party candidate.
"Trade is a wedge issue. It doesn't unite; it divides coalitions, and that's how Buchanan uses it," he said. The trade issue is "explosive," he said, because it is so complex that people can't understand the issues, and they form opinions that are "emotional, not rational."
A shake-up in the presidential election could extend to this year's congressional elections, where control of the House is up for grabs because of the Republicans' scant six-seat majority.
Labor unions and environmental groups two core Democratic constituencies are strongly opposed to globalization and a pact the Clinton administration reached with China to allow the Asian giant's entry into the World Trade Organization and make normal trade relations permanent between the countries.
That dislike is sure to put trade at the center of some of the closest races in the House and could help decide the outcome of the elections, Mr. Zogby said.
Trade could become a critical issue in close contests in the Midwest and South, where a large concentration of labor union members and born-again Christians, respectively, could throw their support behind anti-trade candidates, said Mike Dabadie of the Wirthlin Worldwide polling group.
But the trade issue cuts both ways, he said, noting that a Republican challenger to Rep. Lane Evans, Illinois Democrat, has been making headway in his rural district by promising to push for more access to foreign markets for the district's farmers.
House Republican aides conceded that trade could be a decisive issue in some close races. But they said so far the labor and environmental groups who made their voices heard in Seattle have failed to arouse a public groundswell of opposition to it.
Mr. Nader's Public Citizen, environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, and labor organizations, such as the AFL-CIO and Teamsters, have vowed to carry the crusade they started in Seattle to the halls of Congress this year. In the elections, they say they will try to unseat House members who vote for the China trade pact.
But Republican aides said they don't see the China-trade issue resonating with voters like the North American Free Trade Agreement did in the 1992 election, when Reform Party candidate Ross Perot campaigned against the inter-American trade pact in an independent presidential bid that drew votes away from then-President Bush and helped elect Bill Clinton.
"Perot touched into disenchanted voters coming out of the recession in 1992, and Pat Buchanan got those same voters" in the 1996 presidential-primary contest, said one Republican leadership aide.
"But trade is not as big a factor now because we're better off economically, and because there wasn't a sucking sound," he said, referring to Mr. Perot's famous warning about the "sucking sound of jobs going south" to Mexico under NAFTA. Studies show that big job losses haven't occurred.
"The China vote isn't going to matter like NAFTA. It doesn't affect the guy on the street as much," the aide said. "It isn't going to win or lose elections. The only thing I could see is if someone's in a very, very tight race, it could add to the plus or minus column."
Trade is an issue that is more likely to be used against incumbent Democrats than Republicans, he said. "It's really the Democrats who are biting their nails."
Some Republicans are betting the strategy of capitalizing on anti-trade sentiment stirred up by the Seattle protests will backfire on unions and environmentalists, since some voters saw those protests as disturbingly violent, radical and extremist, the aide said.
A leading environmentalist, who asked not to be identified, scoffed at that. She noted that advocates of trade shouldn't forget that opponents have won every major trade battle since NAFTA. She predicted that opponents will win on the China vote this year.
"We're going to have to kick their butts again," she said.
Polls show the public is sympathetic to groups that want to consider issues like human rights and labor and environmental records in deciding whether to grant a country wider access to U.S. markets.
While the public generally supports growth in free trade and globalization, that support quickly disappears when opponents argue that it will cost jobs or degrade the environment, according to a November study by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.
The study found that 78 percent of Americans think trade negotiations should incorporate labor and environmental standards a major demand of the Seattle protesters. That is despite 64 percent support among respondents for mutual agreements between countries to lower trade barriers.
Bret Caldwell, spokesman for the Teamsters, conceded that so far, trade opponents have not made much headway tapping into these sentiments.
"When you don't have any debate on it at the top levels of government, you don't have the voice," he said. "None of the main presidential contenders at this time has a trade policy that takes into consideration working men and women in this country or abroad."
While "that's a problem," he said, the union is not prepared to back Mr. Buchanan in an effort to elevate the trade issue.

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