On the Subject of Globalization, Dems and GOP Exchange Hats

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President Trump may have planted a time bomb when he announced this weekend that he would soon withdraw the United States from NAFTA, a move apparently intended to pressure Democrats against opposing the successor agreement. He may carry out his threat, or he may not. Democrats may succumb to it or they may not. But one thing is clear: Democrats and Republicans are changing hats on globalization.

Democrats may be recalcitrant on NAFTA, but in general they are moving in the direction of globalization even as Republicans are passing them in the other direction.

While it is debatable whether Trump even has the authority to arbitrarily cancel NAFTA, what is not debatable is that when we listen to a Republican president rail against free trade, and congressional Republicans meekly go along with his concerns, and as nationalism gains support amongst Republicans voters, we see a dramatic contrast between the GOP of old and new. For decades, the GOP was the Globalization and Opportunity Party. When George W. Bush was president, for example, he could only count on the support of a dozen Democrats in the House of Representatives for any measure to open trade, which largely explains why so few trade agreements were completed during his term.

Going back even further, one sees that in the 1990s congressional support for free trade agreements came overwhelmingly from the Republican side of the aisle, even when the Democrats controlled the White House.
When President Clinton negotiated Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) with China, for example, he did so on the understanding that then-Speaker Newt Gingrich would deliver the support of two-thirds of the House Republicans for the agreement. President Clinton himself could only count on delivering one-third of Democrats at best. As it turned out, Gingrich exceeded his side of the bargain - three-quarters of House Republicans voted for PNTR. President Clinton didn’t have to deliver a third of House Democrats; one-quarter turned out to be enough. Many Democrats were freed to vote their districts, or simply go along with union opposition to the pro-globalization measures.

Republican support for globalization in the 1990s was a continuation of a tradition that had been spawned in the 1980s, when Presidents Reagan and Bush achieved trade agreements with Mexico and Canada. Today, not only does a Republican president proclaim himself a nationalist, so do many Republicans in Congress and outside the Beltway.

To those who recognize the need for open trade and global cooperation, the Republicans have been moving along the opposite path. Meanwhile, support for globalization has been growing, slowly but steadily, among Democrats.

No doubt, this is a moving picture, one that is still developing. Many Democrats, particularly those who represent rust belt states and districts like Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), want to see NAFTA scrapped as well as the replacement agreement. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the new agreement needs to be revised, to strengthen protections for workers and the environment, and to ensure these provisions are tightly enforced.

However, the general trend line is clear: Democrats are moving, haltingly and tepidly, away from protectionism, even as Republicans are moving towards it. In most recent polls, for example, Democrats have been strongly opposed to scrapping a trade deal with Mexico and Canada, in numbers greater than Republicans.

Why do the two parties seem to be switching roles? One of the principal reasons is the differing nature of the voters they attract. To put it bluntly, Democrats, with their support among the educated, urbanites and young people, represent globalization‘s winners; Republicans, with their support among the undereducated, rural voters, rust belt residents, and many threatened small business people, represent globalization’s alleged losers.

Just consider the difference in the two parties’ core bases of support. They’re pronounced. According to the Grinnell College National Poll, released this week, two-thirds of rural Americans approve of Trump’s performance as president, while two-thirds of urban Americans disapprove.

It is no wonder that the red and blue states seem to be part of different countries. In many ways, they are.

The fact is, globalization represents the path of economic growth and increased modernity. Republicans are shunning it and shunning their own legacy, even as Democrats are incrementally embracing it. Supporters of a more open economy are finding themselves with a different champion, as are supporters of a closed one.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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