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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 8: Trump Takes Republicans Back to Their Protectionist Heritage

As the debate over the president’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports raged, I though it was important to give the subject a bit more historical perspective. So I did so at New York:

A lot of the pushback the president is getting on his decision to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports suggests he is violating Republican economic policy orthodoxy. Here’s just one example from Russell Berman:

“The hastily arranged announcement horrified the veteran free-traders who lead the GOP in Congress: not only House Speaker Paul Ryan, but also the chairmen of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over trade, Kevin Brady of Texas and Orrin Hatch of Utah, respectively. Trump has rebuffed the efforts by Republican lawmakers and some of his own advisers to slow his drive for tariffs, and GOP leaders appear to lack either the will or the votes in Congress to block him legislatively.”

Yes, Republicans have recently been the party of free-traders, more or less. But as the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan reminds them, there’s an older tradition in the GOP to which Trump is entirely faithful:

“From Lincoln to William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt, and from Warren Harding through Calvin Coolidge, the Republican Party erected the most awesome manufacturing machine the world had ever seen.

“And, as the party of high tariffs through those seven decades, the GOP was rewarded by becoming America’s Party.”

Buchanan is right. Certainly in the late 19th century the GOP was defined as the party of protectionism as much as it was identified with any other issue position. It was the great cause to which Benjamin Harrison devoted his career. William McKinley proudly put his name on the very high-tariff measure that Harrison signed into law. And McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Thank God I’m not a free-trader!” This was a policy tradition, moreover, that could be easily traced back to the GOP’s Whig ancestors and ultimately to Andrew Hamilton.

And Democrats were very much the party of free trade, at least from the days of Martin Van Buren. (Trump’s hero Jackson was not a free-trader in any systematic sense.) Tariffs were the key question separating the two parties in those close elections that capped the 19th century. But beyond that every single Democratic president since Van Buren has made lowering trade barriers a priority. That includes the last several Democrats in the White House; this is not an issue, like civil rights or economic regulation, where the two parties just exchanged positions in the 20th century, with “free trade” being a conservative position. FDR was perhaps the most rigorous free-trader ever, insisting on unilateral trade concessions to Western Europe after World War II. Going back further, the famous populist William Jennings Bryan was a big-time free-trader, too.

Republicans never completely stamped out their protectionist heritage, though market-based and internationalist trade policies became part of the anti-communist consensus after World War II. Recent GOP presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush found it necessary to impose the occasional retaliatory measure on imports affecting vulnerable and politically sensitive sectors like textiles and steel.

But when you listen to Trump talk about trade and tariffs, it’s clear that protectionism is at the center of his understanding of economic policy, not the periphery. I noticed this in June of 2016, when he had nailed down his party’s presidential nomination and was pulling no punches, going “high protectionist” in a speech in the ever-tariff-friendly state of Pennsylvania. Here’s a sample:

“Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.

“When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing.

“For years, they watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment. Many of these areas have still never recovered.”

This isn’t the language of a pol who just thinks trade negotiators haven’t been tough or smart enough. He objects to the very idea that economic globalization is or can be a good thing. So why wouldn’t he be perfectly happy with restricting trade?

The big question economically is whether Trump’s new tariffs, which aren’t a huge thing in themselves, have a spiraling effect on other country’s policies and on global investment markets. But the big question politically is whether Republican pols and opinion-leaders follow him down this path, as they have done on so many other matters.

Democrats have their own sorting-out to do on trade policy; “free trade” is now an unsavory term for most of them, and even Hillary Clinton abandoned Barack Obama’s trade agenda in 2016. But it’s important for them to understand the back-to-the-future trend in the GOP.

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