Thursday, May 8, 2008

House Democrats recently inflicted a near-mortal blow to free trade. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, using her considerable procedural power, delayed indefinitely an up-or-down congressional vote on approving the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. True, scuttling this particular deal will neither crush the international trading system nor immediately inaugurate a new era of protectionist policies. Blocking a trade agreement with Colombia is not the 21st-century version of the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill.

But the absence of more full-throated public support and effective response from free-trade advocates underscores a broader and more fundamental weakness in the way open-market proponents participate in the electoral process and their approach to the new world of lobbying. Both need to change or free trade will continue its steep decline in public and legislative support.

Opponents of open markets have been gaining ground for the past decade, but their efforts fully blossomed in 2006 when union and environmental activists invested heavily in congressional campaigns of Democrats. free-trade advocates failed to match these efforts, and Mrs. Pelosi’s bold procedural step reminds us that elections matter. Killing this free-trade agreement is a consequence flowing directly from the new Democratic majority. Unions and environmental interests did not hedge their bets. They unabashedly supported Democrats — and now enjoy the spoils of political victory.

Free-trade supporters take a different approach. Loath to appear overtly “political,” they spread their financial contributions around to both sides of the aisle and sit on the sidelines of most big electoral fights, hoping for the best and seemingly engaged in asymmetrical warfare. Several Democratic lawmakers with a history of support for free trade voted with Mrs. Pelosi, winning plaudits from unions and environmental lobbyists, and feeling no political repercussions from open-market advocates.

Congressional policy decisions also follow the larger arch of public opinion. A recent Pew Research Center report highlights the turnaround when it comes to trade. In September 1997, a plurality of Americans (47 percent to 30 percent) believed free-trade agreements were a “good thing for this country.” A little over a decade later, in April 2008, those numbers had flipped. Now only 35 percent say trade agreements are a “good thing,” and 48 percent say they are “bad for the country.” The same report finds that in July 2003, 38 percent said free-trade agreements “hurt” their personal financial situation. Five years later that number had climbed by 10 points. A January Fortune magazine piece by Nina Easton tells a similar story. “America Sours on Free Trade,” the headline asserts. “A large majority — 68 percent — of those surveyed in a new Fortune poll say America’s trade partners are benefiting the most from free trade, not the U.S.,” Easton writes.

Unfortunately, many free-trade supporters have an outmoded view of how lobbying really works in the 21st century. They believe it’s done through hiring a few well-connected advocates to “fix” the problem. Insiders — former staffers or members of Congress — get hired to influence the votes and attitudes of the very malleable public officials. But that view of the influence business only exists in the minds of Hollywood screenwriters and maybe editorialists for The New York Times. Elections influence public policy a lot more than lobbyists — and so does public opinion.

Supporters of free trade need to make a massive effort to reshape public attitudes. “Companies don’t think twice about investing millions of dollars to promote their brand or sell a product,” a communications specialist told me. “But when it comes to investing in shaping the public opinion environment in a meaningful way they somehow think it’s a waste of money or someone else’s job.” Many still believe they can hire a lobbyist in Washington and just convince people to fix the problem. It’s too late for that. That approach may have worked 20 or 30 years ago, but it won’t in today’s open, decentralized and accountable system. When they do try to fight, free-trade backers don’t exhibit the same intensity and focus as labor. Their arguments need more specificity.

Reshaping public attitudes — using the latest advertising and persuasion tactics — and engaging more aggressively in electoral politics — are the only ways to win. Free-trade advocates need to convince consumers they benefit from lower prices and choices offered from imports, and that exports fuel domestic jobs and economic growth. They need to show ordinary Americans that the benefits of trade extend beyond the corporate boardroom — and put some more resources behind articulating precisely how.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy for Dutko Worldwide and is a former White House senior lobbyist.

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