Bush and the Trade Agenda

Bush will have no opportunity to be a uniter on trade policy. The political landscape is simply too divided, and the same divisions that virtually paralyzed the Clinton administration on trade policy threaten to do the same with Bush. Rather, Bush’s choice will be whether to be a clever divider or a clumsy divider.

Here is what I mean. Bush’s stated top priority on trade is to guide new language through the U.S. Congress to grant the administration authority to negotiate new trade agreements with other nations under the so-called “fast track” rules under which Congress simply votes “yes” or “no” on trade agreements. Such authority expired during the Clinton years and there has been no consensus on how to renegotiate it. Most Democrats oppose new authority unless it contains strong language on enforceable labor and environmental rights in trade agreements, and most Republicans reject any such language. The fact that there are also a number of Republicans who are more in the Buchanan “protectionist” mode and oppose the idea of fast track authority under almost any guise made it impossible for Clinton to cobble together a free trade majority in the House.

Bush has a chance to win congressional approval on new “fast track” authority if he is clever. The clever approach would be to agree to weak labor and environmental language to win over some Democrats and yet win support from almost all Republicans by pointing out to them that the language is toothless.

The Bush administration is just as likely, however, to fail in the cleverness category and instead go down in history as clumsy dividers. Bush’s Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, has been described as the “second brain” of James Baker (the former treasury secretary who led Bush’s Florida recount fight). He is, in the words of the Washington Post, a “dogmatic free trader” who is likely to oppose any language on labor and environmental rights no matter how toothless. Without such language, the combination of the overwhelming majority of Democrats and the Buchanan Republicans is likely to deny Bush new trade authority.

This, in turn, will frustrate Bush’s attempts to lock up his other big trade priority, finishing the work his father started in creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bush will face big citizen protests at the April negotiating session in Quebec for the proposed NAFTA expansion to the rest of the hemisphere. Other nations will take his desire to seal a deal less seriously if he continues to lack trade authority.

Overall, Bush’s zeal for corporate-led globalization matches Clinton’s, but Bush is unleashed from any need to appease Democratic Party constituencies such as the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club. Yet Bush is as likely as his predecessor to fail in most globalization initiatives in the face of a growing citizen movement that opposes further liberalization of trade and investment. By putting business executives in Commerce and Treasury and a free trade ideologue in the Trade Representative’s seat, Bush brazenly equates U.S. interests with global corporate interests. This adds fuel to social movements concerned with globalization and augurs four years of pitched battles over the rules that govern economic integration. Bush’s negotiators also face pitched trade battles with Europe over beef, bananas, and other issues, and growing opposition in poorer nations to expanding the mandate of the World Trade Organization.