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More NAFTA Anyone? Romney Positions as Free-Trade 'Champion' | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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More NAFTA Anyone? Romney Positions as Free-Trade 'Champion'

In his “big” foreign policy speech Monday, Mitt Romney said of Barack Obama: “I know the President hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope.”

If that sounds milder, more moderate, than Romney was playing it a few weeks ago, welcome to the “let Mitt be Mitt” era.

Romney and Obama are different players, taking different stands. But Romney’s veering more and more toward the old Michael Dukakis line from 1988: “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.”

Mitt has not blurring all the margins, however.

Consider the domestic component of Romney’s foreign-policy speech: the section where the Republican nominee for president committed himself to a dramatically more aggressive embrace of “free-trade” than Obama.

In his speech, Romney said:

I will champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world. The President has not signed one new free trade agreement in the past four years. I will reverse that failure. I will work with nations around the world that are committed to the principles of free enterprise, expanding existing relationships and establishing new ones.

Those of us who pay serious attention to trade debates know that Barack Obama has signed “free-trade agreements” with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. (The disingenuous distinction Romney makes is that negotiations on those deals began under George W. Bush.)

What Romney’s actually complaining about are the indicators—few and far between as they may be—that the current president is more inclined toward mitigating the damage done by those deals than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, who took their orders from Wall Street as opposed to Main Street when it came to global trade issues. And the key word there is “modestly.” Obama has not begun to do enough to develop the “high-road” approach to trade policy that has worked reasonably well for nations such Germany, which place an emphasis on implementing strong industrial policies at home while developing international relationships that benefit domestic manufacturing concerns and workers.

But Romney thinks that Obama’s small steps in the right direction—through action to address specific abuses and a more cautious approach to negotiating new deals—are a problem.

Making free-trade on the Clinton-Bush continuum “a critical element of our strategy” will mean more North American Free Trade Agreements, more most-favored-nation trading relationships with countries like China, more outsourcing and more de-industrialization.

That’s a prospect that ought to terrify voters in states that still make things—such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and North Carolina.

Folks in battleground states actually “get” trade.

Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold got it right when he said a few years back: “One can see the results of those policies in hundreds of communities around my State. As one might expect, our largest communities—places like Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay—lost thousands of jobs as a result of those trade policies, most notably NAFTA and permanent most-favored-nation status for China.”

Feingold opposed Democratic and Republican presidents when they proposed free-trade agreements. And he was right to do so. But even he was stunned by the devastation those agreements wrecked upon the industrial states of the Great Lakes region and the Upper Midwest.

“I voted against NAFTA, GATT, and Permanent Most Favored Nation status for China, in great part because I felt they were bad deals for Wisconsin businesses and Wisconsin workers,” explained Feingold. “At the time I voted against those agreements, I thought they would result in lost jobs for my state. But, Mr. President, even as an opponent of those trade agreements, I had no idea just how bad things would be.”

The simple fact is that “free trade” agreements as dictated by Wall Street are never about freedom or trade. They are about making it easy for speculators to engage in a global “race to the bottom,” where workers, the environment, sovereignty and democracy are sacrificed in the name of borderless profiteering.

Honest players on the left and the right, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, have at critical points rejected the simplistic notion that free trade as imagined by the CEOs of multinational corporations and the “vulture” investors in firms such as Bain Capital is necessarily beneficial to American workers, to American industries or to the American economy.

Wise players have argued that the United States must adopt a fair-trade policy that places a focus on raising wages and living standards in the here and in the countries with which we develop bilateral trade agreements. They have recognized that simply letting Wall Street write the rules undermines the ability of the United States to advocate on the global stage for human rights, environmental protection and democracy.

Feingold argued correctly that it is possible, and necessary, to develop fair trade agreements that are “fair to American businesses, workers and farmers, as well as the small businesses, workers and farmers of our trading partners.”

It is unfortunate that Barack Obama has not been more inclined toward Feingold’s view, and that of savvy internationalists such as Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who explains, “I want to see more trade. I just don’t want one-way free trade where our biggest export is jobs to Mexico and China. I want fair trade, with more exports, not this free trade that causes the kind of job loss that we’re seeing. We simply have abandoned the middle class when we passed these trade agreements.”

But while Obama could be better, his Republican challenger could not be worse.

Romney’s promise to “champion free trade,” like his championship of Bain Capital’s outsourcing, ought to scare the wits out of voters who want America to be a serious competitor on the global competition of the twenty-first century.

As Obama mentioned in last week's debate, American businesses still recieve a tax break for moving jobs overseas. Check out John Nichols' coverage here. 

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