Free trade scored some laudable victories in the '90s with the passage of the North American Free Trade Act and the granting of normal trade relations to China.
Free trade seemed a good bet to keep its momentum when George Bush, an avowed free trader, took office in 2001. With some unfortunate lapses — steel tariffs, farm subsidies, sugar quotas — he has remained true to that ideal. Indeed, Congress granted Bush fast track trade negotiating authority in 2002, something it declined to do for President Clinton.
With fast track authority, the Bush administration negotiated and Congress approved free trade pacts with Israel, Jordan, Chile and Singapore. But, regrettably, support for free trade is waning rapidly in this election year even as new free trade agreements are lining up for approval by Congress.
Pending before Congress are trade agreements with Central America, Australia and Morocco. Australia especially should be a legislative slam dunk, but the Associated Press' Congress watcher, Jim Abrams, reports that none of them may pass this year because of election year politics.
Bush's chief economic adviser, Gregory Mankiw, found out just how politically sensitive free trade had become when he uttered the factually correct but politically tone-deaf observation that sending service jobs overseas was on the whole a good thing.
Over the economy as a whole, free trade creates more jobs and benefits than it costs. But it does have very specific costs. The macroeconomic benefits of free trade are of no comfort to the residents of rural, hard scrabble Clintwood, Va., which is losing its Travelocity call center and the 275 jobs that go with it to India.
The abstract statistics are all on the free traders' side but the telling anecdotes are all on the protectionist side. There is little political mileage for either Bush or Democrat John Kerry making a big deal of free trade during the campaign, perhaps even the reverse for Kerry.
Congress could, if it had a mind to, pass the three pending trade agreements this spring, but as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, put it, in an election year "political courage is not always in endless supply."
Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is pushing ahead on free trade agreements covering the Western Hemisphere, the Mideast and Thailand.
Hang in there, Mr. Ambassador. The election is only eight months away.