Monday, April 06, 2009

Bush's free trade record

Matt Welch of Reason magazine writes an excellent column on President Obama's growing record of hypocrisy, which Welch more charitably refers to as double-talk. In what I suspect is an indulgence of the libertarian penchant for casting equal blame on Republicans and Democrats he also takes President George W. Bush to task for his record on free trade in the column's introduction. It's one that I found unfair and prompted me to send the following email to Welch:

In an otherwise excellent column on Obama's double talk I think you took an unfair shot at President Bush. You wrote:

In March 2002, when the nation was still massively behind George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks, he gave the first obvious signal that his administration would play cheap politics even in a time of grave global uncertainty by slapping a temporary new tariff on imported steel. If the world’s fragile economy and the putatively bedrock principles of free trade could be sold out for a couple of percentage points in contested Rust Belt states, we shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the very “war on terror” would be subject to political manipulation, or that Bush’s skin-deep economic philosophy could not be counted on in a crisis. The costs of what this move revealed became clear soon enough, and eventually Americans withdrew their benefit of the doubt.

I think that this leaves out some important context. Let's remember that later that same year that Bush also secured passage of the Trade Act of 2002 that granted him Trade Promotion Authority to more easily conclude free trade deals. Passage of that bill was extremely close -- 215-212 in the House. I think a good case can be made that Bush's steel tariffs gave political cover to some Congressman to vote for the Trade Act. Bush then used TPA to conclude a number of bilateral deals and the multilateral CAFTA. He also gave numerous exemptions to the steel tariffs and then repealed them entirely in December 2003 even though they were supposed to run until 2005.

He gave an inch on free trade but gained a yard. Seems like smart politics to me and a net gain for free trade.

I think there is plenty to criticize Bush for, this strikes me as a bit wide of the mark.

Best regards,

I'll be sure to post any response I receive.

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