Is America ready to get tough on trade?

Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca is stumping the country urging retaliatory action against Japan for refusing to open its doors to American products.

Farm-state legislators are crying foul over the fact that the strong dollar and subsidized agriculture products from other countries hurt U.S. farm exports.

And yesterday, members of the Senate Finance Committee complained publicly that the United States isn't getting a fair deal in international trade and that it's time to change.

All of that suggests that attitudes about free trade are changing, and out of that may come a potent issue for some politician in coming years.

A number of political analysts argue that trade is one of the sleeper issues of the late 1980s, that the combination of pent-up frustration over unfair treatment by foreign competitors and the loss of American jobs to overseas factories that can be exploited by one political party or the other.

But the evidence of a political consensus remains contradictory.

Last year, Walter F. Mondale tried and failed to make the trade deficit a major issue in his campaign. He supported domestic content legislation, which would require automobiles sold in the United States to have a certain percentage of their parts produced in this country.

He called for restrictions on steel imports to help the battered American steel industry. He railed against the federal budget deficits, arguing that they had created a currency imbalance that in essence put an invisible tax on U.S. exports and an invisible subsidy on imports.

But for Mondale, the issue never took hold. In the fight for the Democratic nomination, he was criticized as a protectionist by Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and tried to argue he wasn't. In the campaign for the general election, his inability to get people to listen indicated that trade still may be a sleeper.

"I think there is a change, but I don't think it's a high-profile issue," said Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), who heads a working group of Democratic senators on trade. "I doubt you can take any economic issue and make it a major political issue unless the economy goes sour."

But Bentsen believes Congress and President Reagan must act before it becomes a major political issue.

Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), who was part of an international group that just completed a study of world trade, said he fears the persistent trade deficits and the anger in some industries may push the United States into a trade war, and he calls that "a dangerous trend."

"I think we're definitely closer to [a trade war] because of the trade deficit . . . and because people have lost their jobs and nobody in government has a program to take care of those people."

In those parts of the country where the impact of foreign competition has been strongest, protectionist sentiment is high. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) held a town meeting in Sharon, Pa., several weeks ago, an area where the steel industry has been devastated, and the anger toward the Japanese was described in military metaphors.

"We kicked hell out of Japan," one elderly man told Specter. "Don't be surprised if we have to do it again."

That kind of talk alarms many politicians, who fear that such feelings are fueling support for protectionist legislation. But they say Reagan must take some action to show other countries the United States is serious about demanding fair treatment.

"There's an emerging consensus that we have to be much tougher in trade negotiations . . . ," said Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.). "If Reagan choses to do nothing, we'll see a plethora of bills that are protectionist."

But as a political issue, trade still cuts two ways. Ask Americans if they think Congress should enact legislation to protect American jobs from being eliminated by foreign competition, and they generally say yes. But ask if they also want the ability to purchase the lowest-cost, best-quality goods, regardless of their origin, and they want that also.

That's why politicians in both parties are looking more closely not only at solutions to the trade deficit but the political impact of foreign competition. "It will become more and more of a political problem," said one Democrat on Capitol Hill. "But it isn't there yet."