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Eight hours before the first polls closed on November 8, 2016, the late Charles Krauthammer appeared on Fox News and made a prediction. Should Trump win, he said, it would “irreversibly” change the Republican Party.
“Particularly the most obvious issues will be immigration and trade,” Krauthammer explained.
Nearly two years into the Trump presidency, a look at debates from key Senate races may offer a hint at the party’s future on trade. The old guard is sticking with its free-trade roots.
“I am for freedom, free people and free markets, and I am not a fan of tariffs and never have been,” Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn said in her debate with Democrat Phil Bredesen. “But China has had a trade war on us for decades, and if we’re in a trade war, for goodness sakes let’s make sure we win this. Now, I hope that we get these tariffs over and done with because they are not good for Tennessee.”
Moments later Blackburn was asked to name one Trump policy she disagreed with.
“One is the tariffs . . . ”
On this the two candidates agreed. “The tariffs we have right now are hurting Tennessee badly,” Bredesen said.
The free trade question has sometimes offered a rare note of harmony for debating Republicans and Democrats who can’t agree on much else.
“I’m against tariffs. I’m against a trade war,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said during his debate with Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke. “This is one of the few issues on which Congressman O’Rourke and I have some common ground in that we’ve both spoken out in favor of trade.”
Whether out of conviction or because of their reading of the electorate, the tone is often different from emerging GOP voices.
Martha McSally is the Republican Party establishment candidate in Arizona. She recently campaigned with unabashed free trader Mitt Romney.
Yet when the question came up in her October debate with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, McSally said, “I believe in free and fair trade.”
McSally followed up the debate with a page on her website that cast her opponent as the unrestrained free trader: “Kyrsten Sinema continues to obstruct the President’s agenda to overturn unfair trade deals that harm American workers and put America first, even though a majority of Americans agree with his trade policies.”
Republican candidates are now finding a way to put the word “fair” right up there in equal billing when discussing free trade.
“Yes, we need free but fair trade,” Michigan Republican John James said in his recent Senate debate. “You can no longer have predatory business deals where China takes advantage of the American worker and the American business.”
The shift in tone and substance hasn’t gone unnoticed by the media.
It has become trendy for pundits to point to Republican candidates lagging behind the Democrats in industrial states and claim Trump’s trade policies are proving too much to bear.
Except that in some cases it is the Democrat who is more in line with Trump’s trade policy.
In Ohio, incumbent Democratic Senator and longtime free-trade critic Sherrod Brown nearly did a “happy dance” on learning of Trump’s steel tariffs, according to one news report. Brown is currently running ahead of his Republican challenger and another recent headline read, “Sticking with Trump on trade boosts Ohio Democrat in Senate race.”
Contrast that contest with the one in Missouri, where Republican Josh Hawley is running against Senator Claire McCaskill, who has criticized Trump on tariffs and trade.
In their October debate, Hawley gave an articulate and forceful defense of Trump Administration trade practices.
Hawley said America is in a trade war that China started. Then he zeroed in on McCaskill’s opposition to Trump’s aid package to help offset losses to the agriculture industry as the administration works for a better deal. Specifically, Hawley took issue with the assertion that the aid package was intervening in the market to pick winners and losers.
“With all due respect, I wanna pick winners and losers,” Hawley said. “I wanna pick Missouri farmers as winners, and I wanna pick China as a loser.”
Conservatives have long opposed using the tax code and regulation to pick winners and losers among American businesses.
Hawley makes the case that we absolutely should look out for American workers and businesses when cutting deals with other countries. It is an important distinction.
Old mantras die hard, and the most hardline free traders can still find like minds among Republican Senate candidates.
But there is increasing support from Republican politicians for trade deals that put the interests of American workers and businesses first at the negotiating table.
In line with Krauthammer’s prediction, the free trade hold on the GOP appears to have loosened significantly since that pivotal November night. It’s about time.
Photo Credit: VCG/VCG via Gettty Images