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The Republican Platform on Trade

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By William Reinsch:

After years of being below the fold in the business section, trade policy has emerged onto the front page, albeit in the worst possible way — via a political debate that is largely devoid of facts. I suppose there is something to be said for that old cliché that any publicity is good publicity; it’s always better to be talked about than ignored, but throwing more sewage into an already toxic environment is probably not helping. Unfortunately, the two party platform committees seem to have ignored that. 

On the Republican side, the platform is a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Most of Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about trade is not there, but his basic positions are, which makes the platform a significant departure from that of four years ago which reflected the long standing Republican support for free trade and more trade agreements, including TPP. The 2012 platform said:

“The Free Trade Agreements negotiated with friendly democracies since President Reagan’s trailblazing pact with Israel in 1985 facilitated the creation of nearly ten million jobs supported by our exports….That record makes all the more deplorable the current Administration’s slowness in completing agreements begun by its predecessor and its failure to pursue any new trade agreements with friendly nations.”

That platform also supported TPP and promised to complete negotiations on it.

This year, TPP has disappeared entirely in favor of generalities about better trade deals that put America first. Of course, that’s better, or at least more polite, than Trump’s reference to TPP as “the rape of our country,” but it is nonetheless many steps backward from previous platforms. And it will leave more than a few elected Republicans twisting gently in the breeze, as their past strong support for trade agreements is thrown back at them as a sign that they are not only out of step with the country but with their own party.

Ironically, one such candidate is Trump’s choice for Vice President, Mike Pence, who had a long and consistent record when he was in Congress of supporting trade agreements, which — by the way — were very much in the interest of Indiana.

Is this a sea change or a one-off event that will not be repeated in future platforms? It is certainly a response to the unusual candidate for president the Republicans are putting forward, and, if he loses, it may end up as forgotten as the 2012 platform was this year. If he wins, however, there is a real chance that it could become Republican orthodoxy for some time to come, which would play to the changed party base Trump is busy creating dominated by angry middle-aged white males. In light of continued broad support for trade in the population, according to Pew Research Center data, one would think this would be an opening for the Democrats to stake out a more constructive position. Next week, when that convention convenes, I’ll look at that possibility.

In the meantime, those who are concerned about this trend of events in the Republican Party can at least console themselves with the thought that nobody reads the platform — or remembers it — until it comes time four years later to write a column like this one.

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William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative

Photo credit: EDrost88 via Flickr
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