In a New York Times op-ed, Robert Lighthizer, a trade lawyer who was deputy trade representative in the Reagan administration, hits the GOP and John McCain for being free-trade purists:
Conservative statesmen from Alexander Hamilton to Ronald Reagan sometimes supported protectionism and at other times they leaned toward lowering barriers. But they always understood that trade policy was merely a tool for building a strong and independent country with a prosperous middle class.... Free traders like Mr. McCain instead rely too often on the notion that we should change the country to suit their trade policy—an approach that is not in the best traditions of American conservatism.
My take: Lighthizer may have gotten his history—though perhaps not the economics—right, but he fails to provide a path forward. Ultimately, I think McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama would have roughly the same trade policy: open trade plus greater help for workers in terms of training, education, healthcare, and expanded unemployment benefits.
None of the presidential finalists have mentioned any policies akin to the Border Tax Equity Act, a bill introduced last year in the House (presidential dropout Duncan Hunter was a cosponsor) that would penalize goods shipped from nations that apply a value-added tax to U.S. imports or give VAT rebates to their own exporters.
Oh, and Don Boudreaux of Café Hayek weighs in on the op-ed:
Free trade does not reduce net employment. But perhaps he's talking about specific jobs, such as those lost in Carolina textile mills when Americans buy more textiles from abroad. The argument seems to be that practical statecraft often justifies protecting such jobs even if doing so prevents the creation of other jobs in their place. If this is Mr. Lighthizer's point, he's too modest when calling for trade policies that allow for "practicality, nuance or flexibility." Because technology destroys far more jobs than does trade, Mr. Lighthizer should endorse also a "pragmatic" approach to innovation—empowering government with the [flexibility] and nuance to block firms' introduction of efficiency-enhancing production techniques that displace workers. Surely, according to Mr. Lighthizer's practical logic, we must reject the "dogma" that tolerates "unbridled" improvements in firms' operating efficiencies.