Free trade supporters dominate the presidential campaign
November 29, 1999
Web posted at: 6:09 p.m. EST (2309 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- International trade is fuel for the booming U.S. economy and for debate on the presidential campaign trail.
With the World Trade Organization meeting this week in Seattle, trade issues have moved to the forefront of the 2000 presidential campaign. The meeting is being protested by labor and environmental groups, which are key Democratic constituencies
On the Democratic side, the debate was pretty much settled when House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Missouri) -- who opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement -- decided not to run. Gephardt hopes to become speaker of the House if the Democrats win back the House in the 2000 elections.
Both Democratic candidates, Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, support free trade.
Gore's strong performance in a debate with Ross Perot over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 helped knock down criticism of the treaty. But Gore's emphasis has changed -- at least when talking to labor unions.
"Trade should lift up living standards around the world, not drag them down in the United States," he said. "And as president, I'll work to lift up labor standards around the world."
But Gore still favors fast-track negotiating authority and supports China's entry to the World Trade Organization -- even if he is staying thousands of miles away from the WTO meeting in Seattle this week. However, the AFL-CIO already has endorsed Gore.
The same is true for Bradley, who supported NAFTA and remains a firm supporter of free trade. But in a news release posted on his Web site, he sympathized with Seattle protesters and called for measures including a ban on buying goods made with child labor, and a variety of other initiatives.
In his statement, Bradley said he has long championed free trade "because it is an engine for growth, a source of lower prices, and a catalyst to economic reform." But he also said the WTO should recognize trade's impact on people and nature.
"You must listen to the protesters who are going to Seattle to express frustration about a system they believe excludes them," he said. "Citizens should have a voice not only in the decisions of their own governments, but also in those of international bodies. They must have access to information and be confident a mechanism exists to address legitimate concerns.
On the Republican side, the leading candidates also are strong supporters of free trade.
"China will find in America a confident and willing trade partner," said Texas Gov. George W. Bush during a foreign policy speech earlier this month.
Bush, the Republican front-runner, makes a moral case for free trade, saying it exports American values along with goods.
"Trade freely with China, and time is on our side," Bush said.
And Arizona Sen. John McCain says pretty much the same thing.
"I don't believe in walls. I believe in freedom. If I were president, I would negotiate a free trade agreement with almost any country willing to negotiate fairly with us," he said.
To find opposition to trade agreements among Republicans, you have to look at candidates who are more conservative than Bush or McCain and are struggling in the polls.
"My party needs to listen to Main Street, not to Wall Street on this issue," said Gary Bauer, who is campaigning as a Christian conservative.
Bauer says U.S. policy must be linked to human rights, and millionaire publisher Steve Forbes opposes China's entry into the WTO, also citing human rights.
"No more turning a blind eye to Chinese spies in our nuclear labs. No more keeping silent about Chinese slave labor camps," Forbes said.
Forbes has supported other free trade agreements, but not with China.
For Pat Buchanan -- who abandoned the Republican Party entirely in favor of seeking the Reform Party's nomination -- opposition to free trade generally is a moral crusade.
"A global economy must call into existence a global government, and globalism is at war with patriotism," Buchanan said.
CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider said trade has not been a huge issue in the 2000 presidential campaign. Trade usually becomes a campaign issue during bad economic times, particularly when unemployment is high, he said.
"But the economy is good and unemployment is the lowest it's been in 30 years," Schneider said. "Polls show a gradual increase since the 1970s in the number of people who say that trade helps rather than hurts the nation's economy."
So unless there's a huge upset, it is likely that the next president of the United States will be strongly in favor of free trade, just like President Bill Clinton and his predecessor, George Bush, the father of the current GOP front-runner.
CNN's Brooks Jackson contributed to this report.