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Trade as a Hot Issue Is Down, Not Out

September 17, 1997|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — Has trade died as a grass-roots political issue in America? Have we seen the last of the popular movements against foreign competition that contributed so heavily to the rise of Ross Perot's independent candidacy for the White House at the beginning of this decade?

On the surface, it might appear the answer to these questions is yes. The political situation has changed since the early 1990s. Yet there are also signs that the opposition to trade could return, in a new and intensified fashion, within the next few years.

Let's look at the confluence of two developments over the last few weeks. Both of them involve the field of trade. While each has aroused the passions of selected constituencies in this country, they also have been greeted with seeming indifference by the American public.

First, President Clinton is pushing ahead in his drive for "fast-track" legislation that will give him the legal authority to negotiate new trade accords like the North American Free Trade Agreement without having them subject to amendments in Congress.

And second, America's trade deficit with Japan has begun to spiral upward again, much as it did earlier in this decade. To the consternation of Clinton administration officials, Japan seems unable to make its economy grow these days except through exports.

These were the sort of phenomena that once electrified the talk-show circuits in this country and were part of the lifeblood of presidential politics. Perot's warnings of the "giant sucking sound" NAFTA would produce as American jobs left for Mexico were a staple of his 1992 campaign.

Such views have not disappeared. Author Pat Choate, Perot's vice presidential candidate last year, warned in an interview this week against giving Clinton "blank-check" authority over trade deals. "We're dealing with economies that are really different from ours," he said. "The concept of free trade with Japan or China is absurd on the face of it."


Yet Perot himself is a spent force. His political organization, the Reform Party, is ridden with internal divisions. And in general, the intensity that trade issues such as NAFTA and Japan attracted in 1993 seems, four years later, to have dissipated.

Why are things so much quieter now?

One important factor is that the unemployment rate in the United States is much lower than it was five years ago. Trade is obviously a much more potent political issue when Americans are unable to find jobs.

Another way of looking at this political shift is that many of those American companies and workers who were most threatened by foreign competition have already lost and moved on.

"A big factor is that we restructured our economy," says Clyde Prestowitz of the Economic Strategy Institute think tank. "We [the United States] got out of a lot of businesses. There are no U.S. makers of television sets anymore. We closed a lot of auto plants. So the [firms] who were being hurt are not around anymore. Some U.S. industries got wiped out."

Another factor is that concerns about the harmful effects of trade have been institutionalized. There may be less need now for an independent movement like Perot's, or for expressions of public outrage, because such concerns are being handled better within the existing political system than they were half a decade ago.

Organized labor, as well as such Democratic congressional leaders as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), are leading the fight against Clinton's request for "fast-track" trading authority. Five years ago, as the American public clamored for action on the trade imbalance with Japan, the Bush administration and congressional leaders such as then-House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) tended to minimize or explain away the problem.

Indeed, the political dynamics have been reversed. The public seems apathetic, but the Clinton administration is becoming aroused. U.S. officials seem to be preparing new actions aimed at bringing down the trade deficit with Japan. "If the numbers keep going up, then this could become an issue in the next campaigns," explains one senior administration official.

Above all, the public debate over trade isn't ending, but shifting course. Labor and environmental groups and some of Clinton's opponents within the Democratic Party now say they are not trying to stop the globalization of the world economy, but rather are trying to make sure it will be regulated in a civilized fashion.


One veteran activist on the Democratic left, Robert L. Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future, points out that at the beginning of the 20th century, the Progressive movement took the lead in pressing for health and safety regulations that would protect workers from exploitation as a new national marketplace emerged in America.

"The real question now is, given a global marketplace, what are the rules?" asks Borosage.

It is a fair question, one that demonstrates how unlikely it is that trade will permanently disappear as a political issue in America.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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