With Gary Hart out of the presidential race -- for this year, anyway -- there is no strong supporter of a free and open trading system among the seven declared Democratic candidates. From Jesse Jackson to Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), they all espouse, in varying degree, some form of trade protection.
Thus, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who has inherited some of Hart's supporters and staff, waffles on the trade issue by backing "temporary relief from foreign imports for particular American industries."
Temporary trade relief is like being a little bit pregnant. Witness the "temporary" protection given the textile industry 25 years ago. And, not satisfied with its present prosperity, the textile industry is back seeking more protection this year.
As Ted Van Dyk, a veteran of Democratic Party politics since 1961, has observed, the emerging consensus among Democrats is anything but constructive: "It finds scapegoats among our allies and trading partners, and offers protectionist measures that would receive a failing grade in any respectable economics course."
The erosion of the free-trade coalition that served the country so well after World War II began, as Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) notes, with the defection of the labor unions in the 1960s. And whatever was left of the coalition has been decimated by weakened support from the business community.
When farmers, who used to exert a powerful pro-free-trade influence, found competition increasing from more productive agriculture sectors elsewhere, they too began to put less stock in free trade. With workers and farmers deserting old principles, Democratic politicians, led by Fritz Mondale in 1984, tended to go along.
This year, as the trade deficit worsened, Democrats have raised the protectionist ante. Restrictive ideas and devices that would hit trade and investment abound in more than 1,000 pages of proposed legislation. Gephardt has his well-known proposal for punitive quotas. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) would make it easier to accuse foreigners of dumping by artificially deflating the "home" price of a product for comparison with sales prices here.
So the Congress, both houses controlled by Democrats, is poised to pass a horrendous trade bill that most observers agree will do nothing to cut the trade deficit, but that will be counterproductive by inviting retaliation and imitation by our trading partners.
The legislation has momentum even though evidence mounts that the worst part of the deficit, as measured by trade volumes, may be behind us, and that Japan's trade surplus with us and the world is clearly on the way down.
A new study by two scholars -- I.M. Destler of the University of Maryland and John S. Odell of the University of Southern California -- casts additional light on the disappearance of the old free-trade coalition. After examining the key trade battles over the past 15 years in textiles, autos, sugar, shoes, copper and footwear, they found that the torch is not being carried by consumers or other "general interest" groups, but only by "special" interests who would be hurt by protection.
Considering that, in the end, they must pay the costs of increased protection, consumers show a discouraging lassitude. "Each individual buyer among millions has an incentive to 'let George do it,' " they write.
Worse, because of their strong ties to labor, consumer groups (with some notable exceptions) have failed to speak out on the costs of increased protection. Destler and Odell give an "A" for effort to Doreen Brown's Washington-based Consumers for World Trade (CWT), but note that "the mainstream consumer organizations have largely kept their distance" from the well-motivated CWT.
The business record is hardly better. The Emergency Committee for American Trade (ECAT), formed by big business leaders during the Nixon administration to resist protectionism, was a bold and vigorous internationalist force, Destler and Odell recall. But by 1986, ECAT was a paler image of its original self, backing some protectionist measures, even mandatory retaliation in cases where unfair trade practices were charged.
The large coalitions, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, have been weak players, because of diverging priorities among their members.
So what it comes down to is that the fight against protectionism has largely drifted into the hands of those special trade interests -- importers, exporters, retailers and governments -- who feel they would be hurt. As Harry Truman used to say, "The most delicate nerve in the body is the pocketbook nerve."
Most of us thus are pawns in a battle between two special interest groups. The question for legislators no longer is the ideological one: Which is best for the economy, free trade or protection? The question now to be settled is: Which special interests, supported by which prestigious trade lawyers, can put the biggest bucks into the lobbying effort?