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Presidential Campaign Trail Rarely Turns Toward Foreign Policy Issues

September 16, 1996|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — It's time to start drawing up some questions for the presidential debates this fall.

So here are just a few suggested queries about American policy toward Asia. Maybe they can help to draw out from the presidential candidates at least something specific about what they might do after election day.

CHINA: Do you favor changing the law to give China automatic, permanent renewals of its trade benefits in this country? What kind of reforms does China need to make to be admitted to the World Trade Organization?

NORTH KOREA: Do you think the United States should give aid to North Korea to help bring it out of its poverty and isolation? Or should American policy be aimed at bringing about the collapse of North Korea and the overthrow of the current regime?

VIETNAM: Would you give Vietnam most-favored-nation trade status (that is, normal trading privileges) in this country?

These are not just abstract, theoretical questions. Every one of them asks about a concrete foreign policy problem that the American president is going to face next year.

The American business community is quietly pushing for a permanent extension of China's trade benefits, one that would free it from the annual congressional debates over its most-favored trade status. North Korea is hoping for American economic aid after the elections, and Vietnam hopes to win most-favored status and other benefits.

The Clinton administration has sent out some signals about the course it probably will take on these issues in a second term. Yet President Clinton is talking about these subjects as little as possible in the campaign. He is offering the American people a "bridge to the future" but he is saying remarkably little about what lies on the other side of the river.

In fact, when it comes to foreign policy, what is being talked about in the presidential campaign this fall bears little relation to what will happen after election day.

Let's take the issue of trade, for example. By next January or February, it will probably be one of the most explosive issues on Capitol Hill and between the White House and Congress.

Yet you would never know this from the presidential campaign. Last week's selection of Pat Choate to be Ross Perot's running mate helps to keep the issues of trade and economic nationalism alive in the campaign--but only barely.

Rather, the most important debates over trade are going to take place after election day. Already, the opening salvos are being fired for an epic battle, probably early next year, over the future of America's economic relations with China. And there are likely to be other, similar conflicts during the next few years.

The political divisions in Washington will not be between Democrats and Republicans but rather between two competing factions: free-traders and nationalists within each of the two major political parties.

Choate, an author and economist, has spent most of the last decade criticizing American free-trade policies and the politicians and lobbyists who promote them. His writings have influenced not only Perot but Patrick J. Buchanan, who made economic nationalism one of the cornerstones of his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

After Perot selected Choate, some people expressed surprise, because trade doesn't seem to be much of an issue in the current campaign. Yet that argument has things backward.

Trade hasn't been an issue between Clinton and GOP nominee Bob Dole because both of them have long been strong supporters of free trade. Moreover, in the absence of campaign-finance reform, both of the major-party candidates remain deeply beholden to business and corporate interests in favor of free trade. The result is a conspiracy of silence.

This country deserves a decent debate concerning the extent to which free trade helps or harms American workers. But in the fall campaign, only minor-party candidates like Perot and Ralph Nader seek to raise these issues.

Choate, a veteran on the talk-show circuit, is nearly as glib as Perot's 1992 running mate, James B. Stockdale, was inarticulate. But in the end, that won't matter much. Choate is merely the running mate for a quirky candidate who is slipping far below the levels of support he had in 1992.

If you want to find out what the hottest trade and economic issues of 1997 will be, you won't find out by listening to the presidential campaign. Instead, look at what is already brewing on Capitol Hill.

Last week, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) quietly introduced legislation aimed at limiting the president's authority to support China's admission to the World Trade Organization. Gephardt's bill would require congressional approval before the president--Clinton, Dole or anyone else--could make a deal to bring China into the trade organization.

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