Union Tribune

April 7, 2002

Bush tries to reclaim free-trade credentials


WASHINGTON In attempting to prod the Senate to act on
hemispheric and global trade programs, President Bush is
seeking to answer critics at home and abroad who accuse him of
embracing protectionist policies.

Late last week, the president in a speech at the State Department reiterated his faith in the elixir of free trade and the specific merits of two bills now locked in legislative limbo by Senate Democrats.

One measure would govern future trade negotiations; the other
seeks preferential access for the Andean region to the American

Recent administration decisions hiking tariffs on steel and
Canadian lumber imports went unmentioned, even though both
moves have angered free-market conservatives at home and
allied leaders elsewhere.

Still, it was probably the most comprehensive trade speech of
his presidency, even though it was overshadowed by his
increasing involvement in the Middle East conflict.

By delivering the speech from the bosom of the American
foreign-policy establishment, Bush both elevated the subject's
importance and sought to reassure critics who fear the global
economy may be slipping into a damaging cycle of tit-for-tat
trade reprisals.

Much of that criticism of Bush has been coming from an
unaccustomed source orthodox Republicans who normally
have been unstinting in their support of the president.

Newspaper columnist George Will fits that description. For that
reason, it was not lost on the White House when Will described
Bush's package of steel measures as "an unpalatable confection
. . . that mocks his free-trade rhetoric."

In slapping temporary tariffs of about 30 percent on many steel
and softwood lumber imports, Bush said he was acting in
accordance with accepted international norms to protect
domestic producers. He acted under a law designed to allow
embattled domestic industries time to adjust to unfavorable
shifts in global competition.

That explanation didn't wash in the capitals of many U.S. trading partners who saw the steel decision, in particular, as a political appeal to voters in steel states like Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The European Union, Canada, Brazil and other governments
have threatened a broad range of tariff hikes aimed at U.S.
products. The EU's list targets manufacturers from politically
pivotal states, such as the Harley-Davidson motorcycles that
roll off assembly lines in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

For a conservative Bush supporter like Stephen Moore,
president of the Club for Growth, the steel and lumber moves
constituted "economic adultery" a betrayal of the free-trade
doctrine that Bush had proclaimed as a candidate.

"This just chips away a little bit at the conservative base of
voters he needs to have if he is going to be re-elected," Moore

"His reputation is in big trouble," said Robert Lawrence, a trade
economist at Harvard University. "The steel action does call into
question his commitment to trade liberalization."

Most trade experts agree that Bush's speech, by itself, will not
undo the damage they say has resulted from the steel and
lumber decisions.

A more significant test for the president could be his success in
winning enactment of the fast-track and Andean trade
preference bills, which he said should come to the
Democratic-controlled Senate floor for action by April 22. The
first measure would reinstate the president's authority to
negotiate trade deals free of congressional meddling, while the
Andean bill renews a program designed to wean the region from
a dependence on coca production, the primary step in
producing cocaine.

Victory on those fronts could unclog a free-trade negotiating
pipeline that has been plugged since 1994, when the fast-track
law lapsed.

Tangible results at the negotiating table could go a long way
toward reassuring important elements of the president's political
base, Moore and other free-trade supporters say.

With Congress out of town, it was unclear whether Bush's
attempt to set a deadline for Senate action on the trade bills
would have the desired effect. He has no power to compel
legislative action, and his speech did not deal with the insistence of Senate Democrats that any trade package include a substantial increase in assistance to workers forced from their jobs by competition from imports.

Republicans are cool to that measure, and there are also likely to be struggles over Democratic demands for assurances that
future trade deals include steps to protect the environment and
worker rights.

Meanwhile, Moore and others argue that, for the moment,
President Bill Clinton looks particularly good as a free trader
compared with his successor.

Paula Stern, former chairwoman of the International Trade
Commission, noted recently that Clinton spurned the steel
industry's request for temporary protection from imports. It
was a decision that angered the state's steel workers who later
heard assurances from Bush that as president he would heed
their pleas.

West Virginia's votes turned out to be crucial in sealing Bush's
victory over Clinton's vice president, Al Gore.