The New York Times editorial board has become worried that recent protectionist promises coming from the two leading liberal presidential candidates will hurt their movement’s image among the new more upscale pro-free trade members of their coalition. To counteract the perception that liberals are protectionist and conservatives are free traders, the Times afforded one-time Bob Dole adviser Robert Lighthizer the op-ed space to slander the conservative movement as “Grand Old Protectionists.” Lighthizer writes:
Free trade has long been popular with liberals, and it remains so with liberal elites today. The editorial pages of major newspapers consistently support free trade. … Moreover, many American conservatives have opposed free trade. … President Reagan often broke with free-trade dogma. … President Reagan’s pragmatism contrasted strongly with the utopian dreams of free traders.
Lightizer also points out that “President Bill Clinton fought hard to win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.” Lightizer fails to mention that the agreement only passed Congress thanks to large majorities of conservative votes. Union-owned liberals largely voted against the measure. No politician is perfect on any issue, but to paraphrase Deval Patrick, “words matter.” On trade, Ronald Reagan said in 1985: “And let me say at the outset that our trade policy rests firmly on the foundation of free and open markets — free trade. I, like you, recognize the inescapable conclusion that all of history has taught: The freer the flow of world trade, the stronger the tides for human progress and peace among nations.”
CATO’s Dan Griswold amply defends Reagan’s acts on the issue as well: “It was the Reagan administration that launched the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986 that lowered global tariffs and created the World Trade Organization. It was his administration that won approval of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1988. That agreement soon expanded to include Mexico in what became the North American Free Trade Agreement, realizing a vision that Reagan first articulated in the 1980 campaign. It was Reagan who vetoed protectionist textile quota bills in 1985 and 1988.”
Lighthizer’s op-ed identifies him as a trade lawyer. We are certain he arrived at his protectionist impulses honestly, but everyone should realize that the only reason the New York Times printed his op-ed was because Lighthizer’s clients interests in promoting protectionism aligned with the NYT’s interest in slandering the conservative movement on free trade. As National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru points out, Lightizer helped convince Bob Dole to take a protectionist positions in 1996 to help him in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Dole lost all three states.
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