That is what the Opinion Journal is seeing among the Democrats right now. But, in fact, it is not populism, it is political payback demanded by the AFL-CIO. And that protectionism would inevitably lead to damage to the very people the Democrats profess to be defending.
We wrote earlier this week about the growing Democratic opposition to freer trade even with sub-Saharan Africa and Peru. The Peru pact is already signed, while the African deal would merely extend for one year a textile provision that would save as many as 150,000 African jobs from going to China. For politicians who like to moralize about the fate of the poor, this ought to be embarrassing. Likewise, many Democrats are now hoping to scuttle the Vietnam deal that failed this week due to Republican procedural ineptitude but could still come back in December.
What explains this opposition? Union politics, pure and simple. Once a free-trade supporter, the AFL-CIO began to turn protectionist in the 1960s and is now a relentless opponent of open global markets. Union leaders invested heavily in this past election, and they are boasting about the exit polls showing that nearly one in four voters last week came from a union household. Those voters went Democratic by more than 60%, and now union leaders expect legislative repayment.
This does not mean that all, or even most, Congressional Democrats are truly protectionist. Democrats are split regionally, as are Republicans, between free traders on the coasts and in the farm belt and protectionists in the industrial Midwest and Southeast. However, in their recent years in the minority, most House Democrats began to side with the protectionists. Only 22 voted for freer trade with tiny Oman this year, and only 15 for the Central American agreement in 2005.
The hope has to be that some of this was the easy indulgence of being in the minority. As Bob Dole once said, you can't go wrong voting against a bill that passes–and Republicans in the majority had to do the heavy trade lifting. But now that Democrats are in power, they will be responsible if trade agreements suddenly begin to fail. In addition to the Peru pact, a deal with our South American ally Colombia is nearly final, and one with South Korea is in the works. Democrats will also have to decide whether to extend the President's trade promotion authority when it expires next summer.
We don't think there's much political profit in a protectionist turn. Whatever applause Democrats received from the AFL-CIO, they would lose as much support from business. They'd also advertise themselves as a party of a narrow special interest rather than the larger national good. This is why no truly protectionist candidate has won his party's Presidential nomination, Democrat or Republican, since Hoover. Voters have an instinctive sense that the only way to prosper is by competing in the global economy, not shrinking from it.
I have seen a number of left wing bloggers touting the protectionist agenda as a good thing. But like the isolationist tendencies they have, these are bad ideas. But exactly like the anti-Wal-Mart jihad, it is doing the bidding of the unions at the expense of the poor.