When I meet presidential candidates here in Iowa, I always ask the same question: Where do you stand on free trade?
That’s because for farmers like me, exports are an economic lifeline. About one out of every three rows of corn, one out of every two rows of soybeans and one out of every four hogs that I grow ships to foreign customers. Candidates who want my vote can earn it by supporting policies that maintain and expand my ability to do this.
Every four years, the presidential aspirants descend on the cities and towns of the Hawkeye State—about a dozen were in Iowa over the weekend—and a couple may even come by my farm in the coming months. I’ve hosted candidates in the past and expect to do it again soon. When they visit, my neighbors and I have a chance to vet them.
Right now, I want to know where they stand on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These happen to be two of the hottest topics in Washington right now.
We’re starting to hear a few answers—but not all of them are good.
TPA is a legislative tool that allows the president’s administration to negotiate free-trade agreements with other nations and then submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Last week, this important tool cleared a procedural hurdle in the Senate, following what turned out to be a minor delay. By the time you read this, the Senate may have passed it formally.
TPP is a trade agreement now in the final rounds of negotiating. It would lower barriers for American goods and services in Japan, Vietnam, and nine other countries around the Pacific Rim.
Think of it this way: We need TPA so that we can have TPP, which for Iowans represents a major opportunity. We already export about $8 billion per year to TPP nations—and we can do even better.
So what do the candidates think? On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton won’t say. The editorial page of the Washington Post recently labeled her “MIA on trade.”
That’s too bad, because other Democrats have been outspoken: They’ve campaigned aggressively against both TPA and TPP. In doing so, they’ve turned their backs on the record of former President Bill Clinton, who pushed for NAFTA and other free-trade policies, as well as the pleadings of President Obama, who wants to create his own free-trade legacy.
When candidates won’t say where they stand on an issue, I assume the worst. So if Mrs. Clinton won’t embrace free trade right now, when it could really use her help, then she is at best a fair-weather friend.
Republicans have been anything but MIA. Yet they’re saying different things, both good and bad.
Five of the leading GOP candidates have spoken in favor of TPA and TPP: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker.
From what I can tell, they’re friends of free trade.
Many of the others, however, are equivocating.
First among them is Rand Paul. A lot of people describe him as a libertarian, which suggests strong support of free trade. Yet he has become one of the Senate’s loudest critics of TPA, announcing recently that he’ll vote against it.
Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal also have come out against TPA. Often they’re careful to say that they don’t support TPA because they don’t want President Obama to have it—in other words, they don’t object to it in principle but rather in practice, when it benefits this White House.
This kind of rhetoric may appeal to primary voters, but free trade isn’t about the politics of 2016. It’s about the economics of our country right now. Genuine statesmen—the kind we should want to see elevated to the presidency—should be beyond partisanship and do what’s right.
What I’m looking for in a president is a man or woman who believes in free trade—and is willing to put economic necessity in front of political expediency.
I plan to keep listening to what the candidates say. When I have a chance, I’ll ask them about it directly.
The question is simple. So is the answer.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).