Let me just start out by saying I'm a lifelong bleeding heart liberal Democrat and proud of it.
But after recently sitting down for an interview with Republican Presidential contender Mitt Romney's chief trade policy advisor I'm feeling tempted to cross over to the dark side.
Listening to former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez talk thoughtfully and with depth about Gov. Romney's visions for a new trade agenda frankly had me a little excited, at least on a professional level. Naming China as a currency manipulator, multiple free trade agreements, trade promotion authority. At last, there would be something to write about.
Let’s face it, when it comes to trade, the Obama Administration has been a bore.
That’s because President Obama has never really developed his own trade agenda. Yes, he came into office in the midst of a recession of historical proportions that took his attention. Yes, he inherited three "hot potato" free trade agreements that the Bush Administration had never been able to get through Congress – and while there were purely political reasons why a then-Democratic controlled Congress refused to deal with the pacts, each FTA had its own problems that needed to be resolved.
After letting those FTAs sit on a shelf for three years, the White House last year did have a sudden burst of activity – albeit a somewhat reluctant one. The story told in business community circles – and by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) – is that President Obama only wanted to spend his political capital on the Korea FTA. But Republicans – and business – said it had to be all three or nothing and that meant there would be no renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance for workers.
So all three FTAs – along with TAA and renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences program – were approved last October in what Administration officials now like to tout as an "historic" day for US trade policy.
Okay, so we had one exciting day. But what’s happened since then?
President Obama still has not enunciated a clear trade agenda. And of course, now that the campaign is in full swing, trade is the last thing he wants to talk about. Yes, he does talk about the importance of exports to the US economy and jobs. But I found myself agreeing with Mr. Gutierrez that the touting of exports seems to be mostly an "applause line", since it’s not being backed up by any major efforts to open new markets.
The White House has embraced the TransPacific Partnership as its big trade initiative. And the TPP certainly holds promise – but only when and if more and bigger economies join.
The Administration is eying a big prize – a trade deal with the European Union. But I also have to agree with Mr. Gutierrez that it’s probably the wrong time for those negotiations, given Europe’s growing economic woes.
And then? What else is out there on the Administration’s agenda?
Gov. Romney, on the other hand, is claiming he will keep multiple balls in the air when it comes to the trade agenda. He’ll be looking for FTAs with the Association of Southeast Asian Countries – a move that Mr. Gutierrez both will open new markets and makes sure China doesn’t dominate Asia.
Mr. Gutierrez suggested a Romney Administration would also resurrect the Bush Administration’s idea for a Middle East free trade arrangement – helping to provide economic stability to a volatile region as well as open markets for US exporters. He also would stitch the existing FTAs in this hemisphere together to essentially create the moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas.
I am a not a Republican.
But it sure would be interesting to have something to write about...
(You can listen to my interview with Mr. Gutierrez on this page).