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Republicans grow skeptical on free trade

Wall Street Journal | October 4, 2007

Republicans Grow Skeptical On Free Trade


WASHINGTON — By a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is bad for the U.S. economy, a shift in opinion that mirrors Democratic views and suggests trade deals could face high hurdles under a new president.

The sign of broadening resistance to globalization came in a new Wall Street Journal-NBC News Poll that showed a fraying of Republican Party orthodoxy on the economy. While 60% of respondents said they want the next president and Congress to continue cutting taxes, 32% said it’s time for some tax increases on the wealthiest Americans to reduce the budget deficit and pay for health care.

Six in 10 Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports. That represents a challenge for Republican candidates who generally echo Mr. Bush’s calls for continued trade expansion, and reflects a substantial shift in sentiment from eight years ago.

"It’s a lot harder to sell the free-trade message to Republicans," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who conducts the Journal/NBC poll with Democratic counterpart Peter Hart. The poll comes ahead of the Oct. 9 Republican presidential debate in Michigan sponsored by the Journal and the CNBC and MSNBC television networks.

The leading Republican candidates are still trying to promote free trade. "Our philosophy has to be not how many protectionist measures can we put in place, but how do we invent new things to sell" abroad, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a recent interview. "That’s the view of the future. What [protectionists] are trying to do is lock in the inadequacies of the past."

Such a stance is sure to face a challenge in the 2008 general election. Though President Bill Clinton famously steered the Democratic Party toward a less-protectionist bent and promoted the North American Free Trade Agreement, his wife and the current Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has adopted more skeptical rhetoric. Mrs. Clinton has come out against a U.S. trade deal with South Korea.

Other leading Democrats have been harshly critical of trade expansion, pleasing their party’s labor-union backers. In a March 2007 WSJ/NBC poll, before recent scandals involving tainted imports, 54% of Democratic voters said free-trade agreements have hurt the U.S., compared with 21% who said they have helped.

Take a closer look at how voters’ age, gender, income and other factors are affecting their choices for the Republican nominee, according to the recent WSJ/NBC News poll.

While rank-and-file Democrats have long blasted the impact of trade on American jobs, slipping support among Republicans represents a fresh warning sign for free-market conservatives and American companies such as manufacturers and financial firms that benefit from markets opening abroad.

With voters provoked for years by such figures as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, "there’s been a steady erosion in Republican support for free trade," says former Rep. Vin Weber, now an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

One fresh indication of the party’s ideological crosswinds: Presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas, who opposes the Iraq war and calls free-trade deals "a threat to our independence as a nation," announced yesterday that he raised $5 million in third-quarter donations. That nearly matches what one-time front-runner John McCain is expected to report.

In a December 1999 Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, 37% of Republicans said trade deals had helped the U.S. and 31% said they had hurt, while 26% said they made no difference.

The new poll asked a broader but similar question. It posed two statements to voters. The first was, "Foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy, because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choices for consumers."

The second was, "Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products."

Asked which statement came closer to their own view, 59% of Republicans named the second statement, while 32% pointed to the first.

Rocky Outlook

Such sentiment suggests a rocky outlook for trade expansion. Early in his term, Mr. Bush successfully promoted a number of new free-trade pacts, but the efforts have stalled, particularly after Democrats took control of Congress last November.

Even relatively small deals are facing resistance. While trade pacts with Peru and Panama have a strong chance of passing in the current congressional term, deals with South Korea and Colombia are in serious jeopardy. Some legislators believe South Korea isn’t opening its market wide enough to American beef and autos.

’Fast Track’

Presidential "fast track" trade negotiating authority has lapsed. Without such authority, which requires Congress to take a single up-or-down vote on trade deals, the next president would have trouble pursuing large trade agreements, particularly the stalled global Doha Round.

Julie Kowal, 40 years old, who works in a medical lab and is raising five children in Omaha, Neb., said she worries that Midwestern producers face obstacles selling beef and autos abroad. "We give a lot more than we get," she said. "There’s got to be a point where we say, ’Wait a minute.’"

Beyond trade, Republicans appear to be seeking a move away from the president. Asked in general terms, a 48% plurality of Republicans said the next president should "take a different approach" from Mr. Bush, while 38% wanted to continue on his path.

In the poll, Mr. Giuliani maintained his lead in the Republican field with support from 30% of respondents. Former Sen. Fred Thompson drew 23% in the survey, to 15% for Sen. John McCain, 10% for Mr. Romney and 4% for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The telephone survey of 606 Republican voters, conducted Sept. 28-30, has a margin of error of four percentage points.

A clear majority of Republicans want more tax cuts, but among Republicans who identify themselves as moderate or liberal — about one-third of the party’s primary voters — a 48% plurality favored some tax increase to fund health care and other priorities.

In part, the concern about trade reflected in the survey reflects the changing composition of the Republican electorate as social conservatives have grown in influence. In questions about a series of candidate stances, the only one drawing strong agreement from a majority of Republicans was opposition to abortion rights.

Post-9/11 security concerns have also displaced some of the traditional economic concerns of the Republican Party that Ronald Reagan reshaped a generation ago. Asked which issues will be most important in determining their vote, a 32% plurality cited national defense, while 25% cited domestic issues such as education and health care, and 23% cited moral issues. Ranking last, identified by just 17%, were economic issues such as taxes and trade.

John Pirtle, a 40-year-old Defense Department employee in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he drifted toward the Republican Party in large part because of his opposition to abortion, but doesn’t agree with the free-trade views of leading candidates.

"We’re seeing a lot of jobs farmed out," said Mr. Pirtle, whose father works for General Motors Corp. Rankled by reports of safety problems with Chinese imports, he added, "The stuff we are getting, looking at all the recalls, to be quite honest, it’s junk."

Bush’s Veto

Mr. Bush lately has sought to elevate the importance of economic issues. Yesterday he vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would expand funding for a children’s-health program by $35 billion over five years. He slammed what he described as the Democrats’ tax-and-spend approach during a speech in Lancaster, Pa.

Economic advisers to Republican presidential hopefuls acknowledge the safety scandals have made defending free trade more difficult. "Americans are right to be angered at companies that take shortcuts" in importing goods, said Larry Lindsey, once the top economic aide in the Bush White House and now an adviser to Mr. Thompson’s presidential bid. "The next president has to promote free trade by playing hardball, and to be seen doing so."

In the Republican campaign so far, elevating populist trade concerns has been left to the long shots. "The most important thing a president needs to do is to make it clear that we’re not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas....and then watch as a CEO takes a $100 million bonus," Mr. Huckabee said at a debate earlier this year. "If Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008."

 source: WSJ