I’ve never seen American politicians as hostile to free trade as they are right now.
We’ve witnessed spats of protectionism before, but it seems like today’s major presidential candidates think they’re in a bizarre contest to see who can spew the most narrow-minded vision of economic isolationism.
Voters will have to decide for themselves whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump this November. For farmers, from terrorism to taxation, we’ll have a lot to think about that has little to do with agriculture.
As we consider our choices, however, we must defend ourselves and our livelihoods by speaking the truth about trade—and correcting the rhetorical record that both nominees make worse with each passing day of this election season.
Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Cleveland last week blasted “our horrible and unfair trade deals.” The candidate specifically condemned a free-trade agreement with South Korea, even though it has given American farmers and ranchers unprecedented access to an important Asian market. Since the pact’s approval in 2011, exports of consumer goods have jumped by 23 percent, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, with tree nuts, fresh fruit, prepared food, and dairy enjoying strong growth.
Despite this, Trump labeled the agreement a “job-killing trade deal.” For farmers, however, the data doesn’t lie: It has created jobs and opportunity.
The same goes for the 22-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, even as Trump called for “renegotiating” it, as well as the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the GOP nominee continues to condemn.
I did like Trump’s remarks on deregulation: “Excessive regulation is costing our country as much as $2 trillion a year, and we will end it,” he said.
If Trump wants to drive job creation, he’d be wiser to focus on deregulation. It would address many of the troubles he currently blames on global trade.
Deregulation holds enormous potential for helping farmers, especially if it produces a boom in innovation and biotechnology, driving up yields and adding many health benefits for our customers across a wide range of commodities, including those that have not yet benefitted from genetic modification because of the soaring costs of regulatory approval.
Yet Trump puts the problem backward: Trade before deregulation rather than deregulation before trade.
Hillary Clinton suffers from a different kind of dilemma. She doesn’t put the problem backward. Instead, she goes backward in time—and turns back the clock on the New Democrat legacy of her husband, who championed NAFTA in the 1990s, plus President Obama’s recent advocacy of TPP. She has even walked away from her own position on TPP: She once praised it as “the gold standard,” but now, in a bold piece of pandering, insists that she can’t support it.
Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, was a supporter of TPP. Then he joined her ticket and now he is not: he flip-flopped and now opposes the agreement.
A fundamental obligation of statesmanship is to shape public opinion so that it aligns with the truth. In the case of free trade, this means acknowledging that the flow of goods and services across borders can create challenges, as I’ve seen in my own community in rural Iowa—but also highlighting trade’s broad-based advantages in the form of lower consumer prices at home and better export markets abroad.
If nobody else will say these things, then farmers must. We cannot remain silent.
The good news is that ordinary Americans appear ready for positive messages on trade. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans regard free trade as more of an opportunity than a threat, with only 34 percent believing the opposite.
The reverse was true eight years ago: 52 percent saw trade as mainly a threat and 41 percent saw it as an opportunity.
The reasons for these changing views are complex—but surely they owe something to President Obama, who has spent the last several years speaking in favor of free trade, even as he criticized it as a presidential candidate. He has led his supporters to alter their own views. Today, Democrats are a bit more likely than Republicans to favor free trade.
Political leaders in both parties should do the right thing, breaking away from the populist delusion that Americans cannot compete with people in other countries.
They can start by listening to farmers, and then speaking the truth about trade.