And the GOP

As Senate Republican leaders meet to discuss trade issues, it seems fitting that they are never far from the stern visage of Nelson Aldrich, whose portrait hangs in the office of Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole. Aldrich's philosophy that "trade follows the flag" inspired every Republican high-tariff bill from McKinley to Smoot- Hawley. But the Rhode Island Republican's protectionist legacy, now invoked by Sen. Rob Packwood's call to "shut off what markets I can" to Japanese products, could cripple the economy and endanger Republican ascent to majority party status in the United States.

Fifty-six years ago more than a thousand economists predicted the dire consequences of protectionism and petitioned Congress and President Hoover not to adopt the Republican-sponsored Smoot-Hawley Act of 1929. Most economists agree that Smoot-Hawley exacerbated the Great Depression. That broad-based opposition to protectionism is echoed today by those who warn us of higher prices on protected products and a job lost in an export business for every one protected by an import quota or by domestic content legislation. Moreover, despite polls that indicate Americans may favor trade reprisals, protectionist appeals are unlikely to be successful and could backfire on Republicans.

President Reagan understood the underlying optimism of Americans when he addressed trade issues during the reelection campaign. Time and again he appealed to them to "outproduce, outsell and outcompete the pants off anyone in the world." Responding to Walter Mondale's support for domestic content legislation and criticism of his trade policies, he said: "Now, some advocate far harsher methods. They believe we should run up the flag in defense of our markets, embrace protectionism and insulate ourselves from world competition. But we'll never meet the challenge of the '80s with that kind of defeatist mentality." That advice he gave to UAW members at a Ford assembly plant in Claycomo, Mo.

Almost a year before the election, pollster Daniel Yankelovich assessed the weak appeal of protectionism in Public Opinion magazine. He saw it as "a loser's psychology . . . not in keeping with the present psychological mood in the United States."

If Republican senators think there is some political benefit to supporting protectionist legislation, be it a tariff, a quota or an outright ban on imports, they are wrong. The only two Democrats elected president between 1860 and 1928, Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892 and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916, campaigned vigorously against protectionist high tariffs. Discontent with the McKinley Tariff and the Republicans was so great that in 1892, Democrats swept control of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives for the first time since 1856. And while public support for high tariffs during deep recessions benefited Republicans in the elections of 1894 and 1896, it vanished in 1930 and 1932 when the Democrats were victorious.

The last Republican to campaign as an outright protectionist was John Connally in the 1980 nomination contest. His call to let the Japanese "sit on the docks of Yokohama in their Toyotas and watch their Sony television sets" set corporate board room hearts aflutter. But his fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses demonstrated the limited appeal of his negative nationalism in Middle America.

It's hard to understand why Republicans would want to compound their political problems in the Farm Belt, where most people favor free trade. Farmers understand that protectionist action at home invites retaliatory action against U.S. agricultural exports.

The political harvest Republicans could reap from advocating reciprocity legislation is their old special- interest label. What Rob observed about the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill of 1909 could easily apply today. He called it the "consummation of privilege more reprehensible than had ever found a place in the statutes of the country." People would undoubtedly question why the party that espouses free-market domestic policies now advocates government intervention in the international marketplace. Tariff bills have a notorious reputation as legislative pork barrels. Republican senators from timber-, automobile- and steel- producing states who advocate import restrictions on these products could revive the image of Republicans as caterers to big business.

At the same time, the younger Democratic leaders, Sens. Gary Hart, Bill Bradley and Albert Gore, have moved away from their party's support for protectionist legislation such as the domestic content bill.

Ronald Reagan told the Republican Party in Dallas that it had become "the party of new ideas . . . whose philosophy is vigorous and dynamic." He ridiculed the "old stereotype of a kind of pudgy, solid unimaginative Republican." Republican senators are taking a great political risk if they revive the musty trade nostrums of Nelson Aldrich.