A Growing Skepticism of Trade
In the wake of the 2010 congressional elections, the future of trade policy in the 112th Congress is best summed up by the question once posed by the 1960s rock band Buffalo Springfield: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Trade was not a major issue in most congressional races, so there is no clear mandate from the voters suggesting the direction the new Congress will take on trade issues.
But public skepticism about the benefits of trade deals and the policies of the World Trade Organization is clearly on the rise, especially among Republicans, according to a postelection survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Moreover, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the tea party movement have a particularly negative view of the impact of free-trade accords.
And business lobbyists’ hopes that trade might be one issue where the GOP Congress and the White House could find common ground is belied by Pew data showing that Republican voters want the GOP to move to the right, to stand up to President Obama, and not to compromise on policy issues.
Since trade deals are, inherently, a product of deal-making between industry, labor, and foreigners, this “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude does not bode well for the congressional prospects for the pending South Korea, Colombia, or Panama trade agreements, the long-stalled Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated. And it may signal a willingness in Congress to get tougher on China.
A year ago, a plurality -- 43 percent -- of Americans thought that freetrade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the policies of the World Trade Organization have been good for the United States. Now a plurality of 44 percent thinks they have had a negative impact.
Historically, the strongest support for trade has come from men, the young, college graduates, and people with the highest incomes. In the last year, such enthusiasm has fallen 9 percentage points among men, to 35 percent; 6 points among college graduates, to 38 percent; and 9 points, to 38 percent, among those who make more than $75,000 a year.
Young people ages 18 to 29 are now the only demographic group with a majority that still thinks trade agreements are good for the country. And that youthful support has fallen 10 percentage points in the last year.
Moreover, the long-standing Washington narrative that Republicans are free traders and Democrats are protectionists is simply wrong. A majority of Republicans – 54 percent, up from 36 percent in 2009 – now believe that free trade has actually been bad for the United States, compared with only a third – 35 percent, up from 27 percent of Democrats. Independents have also become more skeptical, with 46 percent now saying trade deals have had an adverse impact, compared with 36 percent a year ago.
With a large segment of the 80-plus incoming GOP freshman class in the House backed by tea party adherents, the trade views of those who sympathize with that insurgent movement are particularly relevant. Pew finds that 63 percent of Republicans and independents who lean Republican, and also agree with the tea party, now think that trade agreements and the WTO have been bad for the United States.
This might or might not be bad news for the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which Korean and American negotiators failed to finalize during Obama’s recent trip to Seoul, South Korea, and which the president has said he would like to send to Congress early next year. Only 45 percent of the public and 48 percent of Republicans and independents who say they lean Republican think increasing trade with Korea would be a good idea.
Why has the partisan tide turned on trade? Republicans and independents are more likely than Democrats to believe that trade has hurt jobs, wages, and the nation’s economy. And tea party sympathizers are the most likely to hold these negative views.
The implications for China of the public’s darkening sentiments on trade are less clear. Overall, the public is divided on trade with China: 45 percent think it is good for the United States, 46 percent think it is bad, with support strongest among the young and the educated, and the greatest opposition from older and less-educated Americans. But half of Republicans – 52 percent – think increased trade with the People’s Republic would be a bad idea, including 55 percent of tea party Republicans.
Advocates of greater trade liberalization are quick to point out that trade policy is not put to a popular vote. So the orthodox, free-trade views of the congressional GOP leadership and their business-community supporters might trump public opinion when it comes to passage of future trade agreements or sanctions against China.
But the striking opposition to trade by Republicans and those who lean Republican, especially those who sympathize with the tea party, as well as their aversion to compromise on policy issues, might give the GOP leadership pause. Why make a priority of an issue that is so opposed by the party’s base?