The Washington Times

The good news is that the president is getting trade promotion or “fast-track” authority from Congress. The bad news is that congressional support for liberalizing trade hangs by a wire. The Bush team needs to be as attentive to rebuilding the domestic case for free trade as it needs to be aggressive in negotiating new pacts in both the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks and bilateral agreements.

The House vote was 215-212, with Republicans supporting it 190-27 and Democrats opposing it 183-25 [two independents voted no]. That’s progress. The last time the House voted on fast track, in September 1998, it failed by a measure of 243-180, with Democrats voting no 171-29.

Still, this is a far cry from the kind of bipartisan majorities that used to attend trade measures in the early 1990s. The North American Free Trade Act, NAFTA, passed in November 1993 by 234-200. Republicans provided 132 votes, Democrats [then in the majority] provided 102. The enabling legislation for the creation of the World Trade Organization, which concluded the last successful round of trade talks, passed in 1994 by an even larger margin, 288-146, with 167 Democrats joining 121 Republicans.

The evolution of the partisan balance is clear: Democrats are far less willing to support trade liberalization measures than they used to be. A decade’s worth of increasing pressure from key democratic constituencies, labor first of all, has taken a toll. It is, of course, easier to vote for a trade measure being promoted as a legacy achievement of a president from your own party, as was the case with NAFTA and WTO. But the erosion in “New Democrat” support for trade liberalization is striking.

On the other hand, the partisan failure to advance trade liberalization can hardly be said to be one-sided. Republicans found about 50 more votes for granting Mr. Bush fast-track authority than they ever found to grant the same thing to Mr. Clinton. At the time, Republicans in the House said that Mr. Clinton wasn’t doing his part by rounding up enough Democratic votes. Could be, but when Mr. Bush needed 50 more Republicans, he could get them.

Mr. Bush’s trade representative, Robert Zoellick, unveiled a strong U.S. proposal last month for reducing agriculture subsidies. The proposal to the WTO would phase out export subsidies and bring down average tariffs on agriculture imports from 62 percent worldwide to 15 percent, with a maximum rate of 25 percent. Some of our negotiating partners are complaining that this asks too much of them while requiring too little from us, since we have relatively low tariffs [averaging about 12 percent]. That’s OK. The proposal paves the way for significant progress, and in any case, our negotiating partners were mainly delighted at having a U.S. administration with fast-track authority, so that things can get serious.

On the other hand, the administration earlier this year took steps to protect the steel industry with temporary tariff barriers and also approved a massive increase in subsidies for U.S. farmers, provoking a chorus of disapproval from our major trading partners and also from proponents of free trade at home. [I called the steel move “the worst decision in contravention of long-stated principle that Mr. Bush has made in office.”]

Retrospectively, with fast-track a go and a strong entry on agriculture from Mr. Zoellick, the steel and farm moves smack of strategy: As C. Fred Bergsten [no apologist for the Bush administration, he] among others has noted, the United States has often taken protectionist measures before embarking on a major trade round as a way of reassuring domestic constituencies. It’s not all about swing states and elections; it’s about defusing opposition to progress on trade.

Maybe so. But I think the steel and farm boondoggles may be more accurately characterized as “strategery,” to borrow a word Mr. Bush coined. By the definition I propose, “strategery” is what happens when there’s a little too much strategizing going on.

If the problem is that the free trade agenda has been languishing for eight years, it’s hard to see how the first step in the best solution is to become more protectionist. I might find it easier to believe that Mr. Bush needed the steel tariffs or the farm subsidies to get fast track done had he first tried and failed without them. To do so, he would have made a principled case uncontradicted by his administration’s own actions. Which is precisely what the trade agenda needs now: a vigorous case designed to increase public support and therefore support in the House.

The administration probably underestimated the criticism it was heading for over steel and then the farm subsidies. All that “strategery” missed the downside risk. If the lesson Mr. Bush draws from it is that he should be pro trade-liberalization if he’s in favor of trade liberalization, so much the better.