Assessing Kirk’s first months as trade rep


The Dallas Morning News
Opinion – by Lee Cullum
June 3, 2009

After an uncertain start, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is running the office of U.S. trade representative with his usual flair and getting good reviews.

The New York Times recently called him "patient and unperturbed" and reported that he generated "a lot of good will" in a visit to the World Trade Organization in Geneva.

Not only did he talk up the Doha Round of WTO negotiations, which badly need a boost to get them going again, he also promised action on the Bush administration’s free-trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea.

Their prospects looked bad at Kirk’s Senate confirmation hearing in March. Diffident and downright cool to these accords, he showed interest in pursuing only the Panama one.

By mid-April, everything was different. Speaking to the Georgetown University Law Center, Kirk sounded like the old campaigner who had fought for NAFTA in Dallas. Even Republicans took notice, and one of them attributed the change to President Barack Obama’s experiences at the G-20 summit in London. In all likelihood, said this Bush administration official, Obama got a whiff of what protectionism would mean and passed it along to his trade rep. The general sentiment from these observers has been, "We don’t care where it came from" as long as it sticks.

Chances are it will, if Kirk can recover fully his former convictions and firm up his nerve to carry the ball for trade within the Obama circle – where unions will always be strong and their fear of foreign products a given, even when sales abroad of American goods, made by Americans, are part of the package.

Nobody is better than Kirk to counter such opposition. He has armed himself with staffers who once worked for Sens. Max Baucus and John Kerry as well as Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. To this he can add his own considerable gifts. At a press conference in Geneva, he called every reporter by name, which never hurts in politics. He also has developed the winsome habit of dropping African proverbs into his speeches, such as "two people in a burning hut don’t have time to argue."

Nonetheless, the field is mined for trouble. Not that much has changed since last September when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to bring the Colombian free trade agreement to the floor. Former President George W. Bush worked hard to pass it and believed he had the votes, but never was there an official tally.

Kirk told the Senate Finance Committee that Obama at some point would have to seek trade promotion authority himself – meaning an accord would have to be voted up or down in Congress, without amendments that would rip it apart. But some are saying this may be a string that has long since been played out. It may be necessary to try instead for rules governing the passage of trade legislation that would accomplish similar things.

Some compare Kirk to Bob Strauss, President Jimmy Carter’s trade rep, and they do both have a wonderful sense of humor and a winning way with people. As he moves deeper into new territory, Kirk would be wise to remember Strauss’ best argument for free trade: "The consumers of the world have a right to buy the best possible products at the lowest possible price."

That’s true. All that’s needed now for Kirk to succeed in a tough job is a little luck and a lot of belief in the rightness of his brief. It would help as well to have the support of the speaker of the House.

Lee Cullum is a Dallas journalist and host of "CEO," which airs the last Friday of each month at 7:30 p.m. on KERA-TV. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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