It was recently reported that noted Democratic strategist James Carville urged candidates to hammer Republicans on the issue of trade. This tactic is meant to put Republicans in a tough spot. We're a nation, evidently, that has zero tolerance for Malaysian-made suits sold at reasonable prices.
Now, this might have been tactically advantageous for Dems if so many Republicans hadn't already surrendered to their protectionist political impulses. There's really not much to hammer them on.
It's astonishing how many "free market" candidates I meet who are deeply haunted by mythological ogres who live to "outsource" and "ship jobs overseas" just to screw the Forgotten Man.
It's such a crisis that last week, the House passed the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act -- an expansion, I kid you not, of the Depression-instigating Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Or, more precisely, a de facto tax on the American consumer.
And guess what? Ninety-nine Republicans voted for it.
Rather than open trade with China, India, Colombia or South Korea (the latter recently signing a liberal trade agreement with the European Union), Washington is busy making demands to corrupt trade -- demands that typically have more to do with carbon emissions than they do with American prosperity.
If the newly chaste Republican Party believes free markets hold the answers for health care and for the auto industry and for job creation, then why, a skeptic might wonder, does it surrender to the statist position on free trade?
Well, the answer turns out to be rather simple. In a recent poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal, we learn that Americans have bought populist fears on trade. More than 50 percent of those polled claim that free-trade agreements have hurt the U.S.
That number is up from 46 percent three years ago and 32 percent in 1990. The poll found that 90 percent of Republicans agree that "outsourcing" is one reason for our present economic dilemma.
No matter how many times history proves the protectionists wrong, they come back and scaremonger and demagogue us into believing trade is harmful. And admittedly, there are few more abstract and politically problematic positions to defend.
We're losing manufacturing jobs. Scary stuff. Which candidate is going to explain to the voters that outsourcing has allowed the American work force to trade up to better jobs and allows companies to grow their businesses and expand their work forces?
Which candidate is going to point out that manufacturing jobs have declined in the past 20 years because there has been an incredible rise in the productivity of the American worker? The output at U.S. factories was 37 percent higher in 2009 than it was in 1993.
Higher productivity means a higher standard of living for most Americans. Unproductive jobs? We have that covered with the stimulus.
"Our philosophy has to be not how many protectionist measures can we put in place, but how do we invent new things to sell," Rudy Giuliani once explained, nearly perfectly. "That's the view of the future. What (protectionists) are trying to do is lock in the inadequacies of the past."
Any Republican who votes for tariffs in the midst of a major economic downturn is locking in to the inadequacies of the past. And now that Bill Clinton's Democratic Party is no longer around, once the right surrenders on trade, we're going to be in a lot of trouble.