Matt Yglesias says that the Bushies deliberately made CAFTA as unappealing as possible to Democrats so as to be able to portray the Democratic Party as anti-free-trade. I don’t know the facts of this particular situation, but Matt seems to have a plausible story to tell, and that sort of approach would be pure Karl Rove. BushCo played the same game with civil liberties and terrorism — do, or threaten to do, a bunch of unnecessarily awful stuff just so self-respecting liberals have to oppose it and thus allow themselves to be painted as “soft on terror” — and it worked like a charm.
Andy Sabl dissents:
The Yglesias/Kleiman theory would make more sense if free trade were remotely popular. But given that opposition to free trade is about the most sure way to win any election that exists, why would Bush push the Democrats where they’d most like to be?
The thumping unpopularity of free trade–however the question is asked–is a simple fact that Democratic free-traders like you, me, and Matt simply can’t easily process because we’d like to think that good policy must eventually be good politics (though it isn’t). (There’s
also the fact, as Yglesias has noted before, and Al Franken has noted more hilariously, that you, I, and Matt aren’t the kind of people whose jobs are going to Bangladesh.) And the compelling arguments for free
trade on substance are things that most normal Democrats (free traders being a pitiful rump) can’t easily process because they think that good politics must somehow be good policy (ditto). But things being as they are, Bush would be crazy to think that defining his party from the Dems on the free trade issue is a winner.
One epicycle that might make the theory kind of work: free trade is unpopular with voters but popular with donors; Bush is trying to separate the Dems’ rank-and-file from their check-writers. But this is
double-edged since Republican voters, especially rural ones, are none too happy with free trade either.
So Ockham’s razor seems apt here. The simplest explanation is that Bush wrote a narrowly pro-business trade deal because he’s narrowly pro-business. He thought he could push it through Congress but he was
wrong. Would this be the first time either of these things has happened?
Andy makes a good point. I’d actually propose a different “epicycle”: the target of the ploy is neither voters nor donors directly, but elite opinion. Getting the Democrats on what looks like the wrong side of a trade issue is a good way to demobilize some of the Democratic chatterers and to strengthen the GOP’s weakening grip on the more-or-less libertarians and the remaining Rockefeller Republicans for whom tax cuts alone might not suffice as a reason, or an excuse, for voting for an increasingly illiberal party running an increasingly incompetent and corrupt government. (Think Dan Drezner, who eventually couldn’t see his way to supporting Bush again in ’04 but is dismayed by Democratic falling-away on free trade.)
For those not taken in by the flag-waving b.s. and appeals to bigotry of various kinds, the only reason to vote Republican is the idea that the Democrats are hopelessly in thrall to their interest groups. CAFTA, with its low salience to the mass public, is the perfect issue on which to make that point.
Matt Yglesias replies:
1. There’s a difference between the question “why is the average House Democrat against CAFTA?” and “what happened to the free trade Democrats?” The average House Democrat is against it because the average House Democrat was always against all trade agreements because they’re unpopular in their districts and because the AFL-CIO
doesn’t like them. The relevant group here, however, is the medium-sized block of free trade Democrats who’ve historically supported these deals. Free trade usually *is* popular in their districts and they get enough money from business groups to outweigh the AFL’s concerns.
2. The direct evidence for a set-up is strong. When Bush realized he didn’t have the votes to pass CAFTA as written, he had two choices. One was to do what the House New Dem Caucus asked and put the traditional Trade Adjustment Assistance spending back into the package. This was guaranteed to get him the necessary votes. The
other was to try and further curtail the already-paltry rise in sugar import quotas to appease rural Republican members and offer them some pork. It wasn’t — and continues not to be — clear that this would work. Bush chose option 2.
3. On motives. Trade deals are unpopular nationwide, but not *as* unpopular as Sabl makes them out to be. Pluralities are opposed, but not a majority. They’re popular, moreover, with Hispanics and with young people. Sticking the Democrats as protectionists is part of the “party of the past” strategy.
What’s more, there’s cash at stake. House Democrats are now going to be cut off from a significant source of funding from high tech firms.
Andy Sabl responds:
I think Matt and I don’t disagree that substantially on the substance of what’s going on. His last point is not too different from mine: follow the money, or lack thereof. And I of course agree that the Bush administration cares about the politics of this rather than the policy substance–but a surprise this should be? The question is whether the political vectors are simple or a bank shot.
I do think the disagreement between him and me concerns values, or to be more cynical, “spin.”
(1) Matt may simply care more about the fortunes, and wishes, of “free trade Democrats” than I. Again, I’m in that group, but I regard it as a small minority and probably a hopeless one. And I’m not as willing as he is to go to the mat to protect the wishes of hopeless minorities if it splits the larger coalition. French people would rather have no plumbers than Polish ones. We’re supposed to convince Americans that Central American sugar is worth the last remnant of agricultural jobs in the American South?
(2) CAFTA is, economically, a pretty small matter in either direction. But given that the politics is a big matter, why should Democrats fall on their swords to associate their party with unpopular positions when it won’t increase world welfare much? (And Democratic votes, hailed as “bipartisan” by the administration, would tar all Democrats, Rust Belt as well as Sun–increasing the tendency of the median voter to think that no political party is seeking her economic welfare.) On the other hand, I actually take some of the Christian internationalist stuff seriously enough to think that increased access for African textiles and farm products might not be that big of a vote loser. Can’t we keep our powder dry? Hasn’t Bush done Democrats a favor this time by proposing a deal that’s so easy to mock? This plus Social Security means two Bush overreaches in a row.
(3) The population is aging, and the aging part is also the less educated part. Thus for both political and moral reasons, there’s something to be said for being partly a “party of the past”–a party that has some respect for people’s risk aversion and the disruptions that come from having to switch careers and move cities. (Again, those of us with fancy degrees may not realize how much working people depend on local family and friend networks that economic change tends to eviscerate. People who make boxes for a living don’t have paid child care. They have cousins, or parents. And the useful parents of today are the aging parents, living with their kids, of tomorrow.)
(4) Behavioral economics tends to put the risk aversion factor at about two: the prospect of losing a buck hurts twice as much as the prospect of gaining one pleases. Economists moan that this means people won’t politically support “rational” economic policies. To my mind it means that we should redefine “rational”: unless a trade deal creates twice as much economic gain for those who gain from it as it does loss for those who lose from it, it’s a bad deal in utilitarian terms. And I doubt CAFTA can meet that test. (It might if we consider Central Americans’ welfare on a one-to-one basis with U.S. citizens’ welfare–but I don’t think U.S. politicians have a right to do that.)
If all this is true, why am I still a free trader? Partly because I’m not only a softie but also a geostrategist who thinks that the U.S. is a less bad world hegemon than China, and that keeping our not-totally-evil hegemony requires strong growth. (The welfare choices of Europe give one the strategic heft of Europe.) But let’s be clear: what this means is that we’re willing to ruin the lives of people in South Carolina to protect our ability to protect Thailand from China in 30 years.
One tangential point I’d like to pick up on: the question of the standing of the welfare of non-residents in the moral calculus of elected representatives.
Andy asserts that it’s not right for American elected officials to give (great) weight to the welfare of non-Americans, presumably because they ought to be acting as the agents of the citizens rather than as morally free actors. But is that really right?
Formally, the problem of an elected official is similar to the problem of any agent (for example, a professional negotiator). I can see the argument that agents ought to be generous out of their own resources, not out of the resources entrusted to them by others. That suggests that agents should always act purely in the selfish interests of their principals, narrowly defined. But I’m not sure that argument ought to be the end of the discussion.
Not all principals are purely selfish; perhaps the agent should he act instead as the principal would want him to act? Or perhaps the agent should act as the principal ought to want him to act. When I travel on an expense account, I tip the same amount as I would if I were travelling on my own nickel. I could save my principal money by tipping more stingily, or not at all. Should I do so?
Most Americans claim affiliation with religious traditions that commit them to value all human beings; is it obviously wrong for their elected officials to behave as if those “Sunday beliefs” were real?
Again, I don’t want to deny the basic plausibility of the notion that elected officials ought to work for the people who elect them. But I doubt that elected officials should do so exclusively, whether that means pork-barrelling (serving a local rather than a national community) or ignoring the interests of foreigners (serving a national rather than an international community).
And the case for vicarious selfishness is surely weaker the better-off the principal is. The United States is the richest nation in the history of the world; even for the relatively poorly-off Democratic constituencies where opposition to free trade is strongest, no one is going to die of malnutrition or exposure as a result of U.S. trade policy. The same can’t be said of Guatemala.
As Cephalus said to Socrates, one of the advantages of being rich is not having to cheat people. We like to think of ourselves as a generous people; that’s a good reason for our government to act generously on our behalf.