Three Cheers for ‘Obamatrade!’

Why it’s absurd for conservatives to oppose a free-trade deal just because the White House wants it.

06.10.15 9:15 AM ET

As far as I can tell, there are two general objections to the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) the White House is pushing for. The first one is wrong, but at least substantive. The other, which has picked up some currency on the Right, is simplistic and partisan. So there’s something for everybody!

First, some background. The Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with Asian nations that the White House and congressional Republican leadership both want, would still have to survive an up-or-down House and Senate vote, regardless of what happens with the TPA (TPA, or “fast-track” negotiating authority, as it used to be called, has already passed the Senate and is expected to come up for a vote in the House soon.)

So let’s begin with the objection that is sincere, if (in my opinion) flawed. Just as technological advances create winners and losers, free trade also has its ups and downs. If consumers can stretch their dollars further because the goods they can now purchase become cheaper, that means they can provide their family with more stuff for less money, presumably allocating the leftover money to other areas, such as savings or purchasing other goods.

That, of course, is a positive development for the vast majority of Americans. But let’s be honest, it isn’t positive for everyone; it’s not a positive development for the mom-and-pop company who might have charged more money for the product—had it not been for the competition created by trade. Nor is it a positive development for the guy working for that mom-and-pop company.

This guy is now (understandably) mad as hell, and when someone is mad you can rest assured some politician will be there to exploit that anger. There is a politics of victimhood that flourishes on the Left (in labor unions, and more recently, in Elizabeth Warren fan clubs, etc.) and has been making a comeback on the Right in recent years. Opposition to TPA is one modern manifestation of this.

In politics, it’s important to assign blame. But since it’s hard to blame automation (which is probably the greatest contributor to our shifting economy) without looking like a Luddite (what are you going to do, smash the self-serve Coke dispensers?), populists have increasingly turned their sights on globalization and immigration, where more tangible villains are available to demonize. We have seen the angry rhetoric that the latter has provoked, and now we’re getting a taste of the former.

Populism means different things to different people, so I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. If populism simply means trusting “we the people,” not the bureaucrats and elites, then count me in. But if we’re talking about a sort of scorched-earth populism that pushes protectionist policies and manifests itself in demagogic scapegoating, then count me out.

As Philip Klein has observed, there are essentially three strains of populism on the Right today: One blends social conservatism with big government, another (my favorite) opposes what we might call crony capitalism, and, as Klein points out, “there’s a third strain of populist protectionism that has manifested itself on trade and immigration.” That’s the strain I’m focused on here.

Now, you can oppose free trade. As I mentioned earlier, some people don’t really benefit from it. But I think that rejecting David Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage probably constitutes crossing a sort of ideological Rubicon, wherein you must surrender your “fiscal conservative” card. Conservatives and libertarians should be the ones cheering for economic dynamism and less regulation, regardless of who’s in the White House.

Sure, not every trade deal is a good one—which is why Congress can still reject any deal negotiated by the president. The good news for opponents of the trade deal is that, even with the TPA, they aren’t out of options.

For those who worry about granting the executive more power, TPA arguably enhances the congressional role. As Paul Ryan has also noted: “We say to the administration, if you want this up-or-down vote, you have to meet three requirements: Number one, you have to follow our guidelines. Number two, you have to talk to us. And number three, you have to remember: We get the final say.”

This actually gives the president some leverage when dealing with a foreign negotiation partner: He gets to drive a hard bargain (“’cause if I don’t, Congress will reject it”) but he doesn’t have to worry about cutting a deal and then having to retroactively retract it, thus undercutting his credibility as a negotiator. If a president doesn’t want Congress to kill a trade deal, he has every incentive to seek congressional input from the beginning.

Now let’s move to the more pernicious objection to what some charlatans on the Right have labeled “Obamatrade.” For those on the Right who either cannot logically make an argument against TPA work—or simply don’t want to deploy them because they don’t comport with a free-market conservative philosophy—there is a second option: Simply say you can’t trust President Obama. That’s it. No need to engage in intellectual discussion. Game over.

This, of course, is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for right-wing populists. But’s it’s intellectually dishonest to oppose “fast-tracking” a trade deal just because you’ve made Obama into some sort of boogeymen.

Granted, Obama’s unilateral (and arguably unconstitutional) executive orders have opened him up to this line of argumentation. But the problem is that any party out of power could use this same logic to try to block any good public policy from being enacted.

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President Reagan supported a line-item veto, but anyone who supported that should also support it for President Obama—who, last time I checked, was on his way out the door.

The bottom line is that we should be wary of supporting or opposing any policy based solely on the person who occupies the Oval Office, because that person will eventually leave, and someone else will wield the power. If you don’t like this policy, man up and own it.

You can be against free trade if you want, but don’t try to tell me it’s just because you don’t like Obama. Come on, you can do better than that.