"WE BELIEVE that if we want the American economy to continue strong growth, we must continue to expand trade, and not retreat from the world." So declared the Democratic platform in 1996. That year's platform boasted of the more than 200 free-trade agreements that the Clinton-Gore administration had signed "to open markets around the world to American products, and create more jobs for the people who make them here at home." The 2000 platform took much the same tone. "Trade has been an important part of our economic expansion," it proclaimed.
Four years later, the Democratic platform again mentions trade, but its tone is far more ominous. Sen. John F. Kerry, should he be elected president, would not be bound by the platform policy, but the change nonetheless is telling and disappointing. The document gives scant recognition to the benefits of open global markets, concentrating far more on trade as a threat to American workers. It cites the need to "aggressively enforce our trade agreements with a real plan that includes a complete review of all existing agreements; immediate investigation into China's workers' rights abuses and currency manipulation; increased funding for efforts to protect workers' rights and stop child labor abuse; new reforms to protect the innovations of high-tech companies; and vigorous enforcement of U.S. trade laws." It vows to crack down on "dumping, illegal subsidies, and import surges that threaten American jobs." And it asserts, "New trade agreements must protect internationally recognized workers' rights and environmental standards as vigorously as they now protect commercial concerns."
Hardly anyone pays attention to party platforms these days, save for a committed core of party activists. On many issues, this year's platform simply ducks. On Iraq, for example, it takes a big-tent approach: "People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war." It splits the difference on gay marriage, repudiating President Bush's proposal for a constitutional amendment but staying silent on whether states should or shouldn't permit it. It serves up a muddle on the USA Patriot Act, promising to "strengthen" some provisions while altering others.
The platform recognizes the pain that globalization causes some workers, but it fails to acknowledge the role trade plays in increasing prosperity: Global free trade could reduce the number of people earning less than $2 a day by about 500 million over 15 years, according to William Cline of the Center for Global Development. Some of what the platform advocates could be constructive, but some positions would be wrongheaded if put into action. A unilateral review of U.S. treaty obligations? Imagine if every country did that after every election.
Possibly the worst thing in the platform is its unilateralist bent in threatening trade sanctions, a move that would trigger retaliation. If Mr. Kerry were to follow this prescription, he would not merely fail to advance trade but actually hinder it. His party's platform doesn't bode well for where a Democratic administration would lead, or fail to lead, in this field.