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TONELSON: Who will challenge Obama’s U.S. trade policy?
Campaign 2012’s most fateful decision could be made shortly, not by Sarah Palin or Jeb Bush or any other Republican A-listers contemplating a run but by Thaddeus McCotter. Unless Donald Trump resurfaces politically, the fifth-term Republican congressman from Michigan looks like the last reasonable chance that U.S. trade policy will be challenged or seriously mentioned during the new but rapidly intensifying presidential cycle.
Trade and broader strategies for the global economy aren’t indisputably America’s biggest policy disasters. Plenty of competition for that title has been generated by the nation’s recession-plagued, debt-strapped, domestically polarized and militarily overextended condition. Still, these economic globalization policies deserve special emphasis.
First, although they represent some of the best opportunities for achieving debt-free growth and job-creation, signs of failure keep mounting. Despite a weakened dollar, deficits that actually keep slowing recovery and boosting the national debt are rebounding. Despite many free trade agreements, foreign trade barriers are on the rise, too, according to two leading international organizations. And an all-carrots China policy has by all accounts produced a People's Republic of China (PRC) that’s increasingly closed economically and truculent geopolitically.
Second, these globalization policies keep enabling investors, businesses and consumers to nullify the effects of even the worthiest recovery proposals. Whether on the tax, spending, or regulatory fronts, the worldwide pick-and-choose opportunities deliberately created by trade and investment liberalization enable too many of the benefits of stimulus measures to leak overseas. No wonder the loosest monetary policies and the biggest budget deficits in modern peacetime American history have yielded such feeble growth and so few jobs.
Third and worst of all, Washington’s bipartisan determination to stay the trade policy course, and even push new deals that repeat old mistakes, is helping to recreate the same kinds of global imbalances that collapsed into crisis and recession just four years ago.
Unless Mr. McCotter or someone similar declares, however, count on these failures and dangers to be ignored by the 2012 presidential contenders. Certainly President Obama won’t raise them. The avowed scourge of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 2008 has turned into the strongest White House supporter of the trade policy status quo since George W. Bush. Meanwhile, liberal Democrats disenchanted with these and other Obama positions have all but ruled out a primary challenge to the president.
The other Republican contenders and fence-sitters periodically complain about growing U.S. indebtedness to China in particular, and chide Beijing for regional muscle-flexing. But they oppose measures that could plausibly staunch the flow of wealth, technology — and therefore, military-industrial potential — to the PRC. More broadly, they strongly support jumpstarting a trade liberalization strategy that has created far more national debt than exports. (One partial exception — Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a longtime critic of certain trade agreements for undercutting American sovereignty.)
Mr. McCotter unquestionably would offer a choice, not an echo. The best evidence is not his trade-related legislative record, which features votes for and against the several recent prominent free trade deals. It’s his keen appreciation of the big-picture challenge presented by current globalization policies.
Representing a suburban Detroit district, Mr. McCotter of course knows firsthand the lasting economic and industrial costs of trade policy blunders. But he also recognizes the collateral social damage of gutted communities and broken families. And he intuitively understands how mismanaging America’s international economic relations can threaten national security — whether by weakening defense-related manufacturing, indiscriminately permitting foreign ownership of critical infrastructure, or recklessly enriching China and speeding its technological modernization.
As a result, despite long odds, a McCotter-like candidacy could improve not only America’s safety and well-being, but its political health. It could connect with a vast, burgeoning, currently voiceless national constituency capable of dropping out of participatory politics even faster than it’s dropping out of the middle class. And it could again inspire at least some confidence that this increasingly angry unwieldy democracy can still mobilize against major challenges before time runs out.
• Alan Tonelson is a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a national business organization whose nearly 2,000 members are mainly small- and medium-sized domestic manufacturers. Author of “The Race to the Bottom,” Mr. Tonelson also is a contributor to the council’s website: www.AmericanEconomicAlert.org.
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