The legendary Will Rogers once said that “the reason political party platforms are so long is that when you straddle anything it takes a long time to explain it.” As to international trade, however, the 2012 national platforms of both Democrats and Republicans packed a substantive punch into just a few short paragraphs between them.

Here are summaries of key planks, areas of dispute between the parties, and other policy areas where differences in the platforms are less pronounced.

The Republican Platform On China

Although the Republican platform heralds international trade as “crucial for our economy,” national Republicans also addressed the “downside” of international trade by labeling China as “the chief offender” of governments using “a variety of unfair means” to impose barriers on access to their markets “while stealing our designs, patents, brands, know-how, and technology.” Through these and other means, China “has built up its economy in part by piggybacking onto Western technological advances.”

The Republican platform also states that China “manipulates its currency to the disadvantage of American exporters” and “subsidizes Chinese companies to give them a commercial advantage.”

The document continues that “full parity in trade with China” will be a requirement of any Republican president, who also will “stand ready to impose countervailing duties if China fails to amend its currency policies.” This platform language is not as explicit as a long standing plank of the Romney campaign, which promised that President Romney would issue an executive order on his first day in office that identifies China as a currency manipulator. (Readers of this page will recall our July 2012 discussion of prior unsuccessful attempts by U.S. industries to seek relief from China’s currency policies through the imposition of countervailing duties.)

The Republican platform also addressed the exclusion by China of “American products from government purchases” and “regulations and standards designed to keep out foreign competition.” The platform states that “commercial discrimination will be met in kind” and that “the United States government will end procurement of Chinese goods and services” unless “China abides by” the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) Government Procurement Agreement.

In addition, a Republican administration would encourage “victimized private firms” to “raise claims in both U.S. courts and at the World Trade Organization.” The Republican platform explains that “the ‘intellectual property’ that drives innovation” in the United States will be protected because Chinese counterfeit goods “will be aggressively kept out of the country” and that “punitive measures will be imposed upon foreign firms that misappropriate American technology and intellectual property.”

Finally, the Republican platform criticizes the Obama Administration’s attempts to address China trade issues as what it characterizes “a virtual surrender.”

The Democratic Platform On China

The Democratic platform conveys a message of an aggressive policy toward China trade issues throughout President Obama’s term “to ensure that American businesses and workers are competing on an even footing” and that “we have not hesitated to take action” where appropriate.  

The platform explains that “the Obama administration has brought trade cases against China at twice the rate of the previous administration and recently set up a new Interagency Trade Enforcement Center.” The Interagency Trade Enforcement Center was established by a February 2012 Executive Order to improve the effectiveness of U.S. challenges to unfair trade practices around the world by leveraging and coordinating resources of various federal agencies.

While comparatively less expansive than the Republican platform on China trade, therefore, the Democratic platform appears to focus on a commitment to protecting American businesses and workers through intensified use of trade remedy tools by the Obama Administration.  

The Republican Platform On Trade Agreements

The Republican platform aspires to “restoration of presidential Trade Promotion Authority” to “ensure up or down votes in Congress on any new trade agreements, without meddling by special interests.” Trade Promotion Authority (“TPA”), which was commonly referred to as Fast Track authority through the 1990s, enabled the president to negotiate international trade agreements which could then be presented to Congress for approval. The most recent iteration of TPA expired in July 2007.

The platform discusses the importance of free trade agreements to the U.S. economy “since President Reagan’s trailblazing pact with Israel in 1985” and asserts that “the current Administration’s slowness in completing agreements begun by” President George W. Bush is compounded by a “failure to pursue any new trade agreements with friendly nations.”

The Republican platform also states that “negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership” will be completed under a Republican president and will “open rapidly developing Asian markets to U.S. products.”

The Democratic Platform On Trade Agreements

The Democratic platform also emphasizes the importance of free trade agreements, including agreements signed by President Obama with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. The platform identifies the ability to “shape the multilateral trading system to reflect the role and responsibility of major emerging markets in the global economy” as “a critical part of the President’s trade agenda.” The Asia-Pacific region, South America, and the Caribbean are key areas of focus in the Democratic Party’s desire “to promote free and fair trade.”

As one example of general agreement between the parties, the Democratic platform states that “we are on track to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a historic high-standard agreement that will address new and emerging trade issues, lower barriers to the free flow of trade and investment, increase exports, and create more American jobs.” Although not expressly stated in the platform, the Obama Administration has previously characterized TPA as a “requirement for conclusion” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, and “any other ambitions we might have” with regard to international trade agreements.

Unlike the Republican platform, however, Democrats emphasize the importance of “protecting labor rights” and “the environment” as a part of a plan to “significantly boost U.S. exports and support thousands of jobs here at home.”

Other Planks Of Note

The Republican platform also briefly addresses the “‘Reagan Economic Zone,’” which is described as “a worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets” where “free trade will truly be fair for all concerned.”

Finally, the Democratic platform states an intention to move ahead with “‘open skies’ agreements” in the Americas “to expand opportunities for commercial aviation and to bring our people and businesses closer together.”

In sum, and perhaps not surprisingly, China trade issues and international trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership are the main focus of both parties’ national platforms regarding international trade.