Robert Novak

Over the last year, the Commerce Department has been battered by as many complaints against tariffs by steel-purchasing companies as support from steel-producing firms. Nevertheless, the steel makers have not given up. On the airport tarmac in Cleveland on Labor Day, Bush was lobbied by a steel executive who thanked him for the tariffs and told him of how they facilitated restructuring of the industry.

Just how much the tariffs have helped the president's re-election prospects in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other steel-producing states is debatable. Not debatable is the failure of this protectionist venture to further Bush's efforts for a foothold in blue-collar labor unions. At the high-water mark on March 5, 2002, when Bush announced the tariffs, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard was grudging in his praise: "I'm not sure it will do all that needs to be done to save the industry, but at least we have a ray of hope."

The White House had hoped the tariffs would impel the Steelworkers to join the Teamsters and other unions in supporting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), with oil proceeds to help fund "legacy" payments for retired union members. Instead, Gerard opposed ANWR, and embarked on a fruitless effort to pay for legacy benefits out of the U.S. Treasury. When Gerard on Aug. 5 announced his union's support for Rep. Richard Gephardt for president, he bashed Bush for "reactionary policies."

The long-term political cost of the steel tariffs is clearer than their benefit. Free market economist Stephen Moore told me the Bush administration had "lost its virginity" on the issue. He meant that the president is now vulnerable to protectionist lobbying on an endless succession of commodities. It is hard for a president even tacitly to admit a mistake, but that is what Bush's economic team wants him to do.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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