The impact of globalization and the changing role of the United States in the global economy are issues gaining salience in the 2008 presidential campaigns. Amidst a divisive national debate regarding a rising trade deficit and the effects of globalization on the American economy, protectionism appears to be a rare example of bipartisan sentiment. Public anxiety over trade-related job loss and import safety, as well as increased media attention to income inequality and the stability of the dollar, will continue to drive the debate on trade.

A reinvigorated Democratic Party campaigned in 2006 on a largely populist economic agenda and has spent much of the congressional calendar addressing trade negotiation and policy reform. Democratic intervention in trade policy has curtailed the administration’s free trade agenda, contributing to the comatose state of the WTO Doha Round, and left the White House struggling to push through already negotiated bilateral treaties with Colombia, South Korea, Panama and Peru.

As the candidates embark on their summer travel season and the Congress decamps Washington for cooler climes, here is a look ahead at the trade agendas of those vying for the White House in 2008.


From “free and fair” to “smart and safe,” the Democrats have predictably run to the left on trade. Focused on the costs rather than the benefits of trade, Democratic candidates are in the process of defining a protectionist agenda for the globalization age.

Clinton: Although her voting record indicates Senator Clinton has generally favored trade liberalization, recent rhetoric marks a notable shift left in populist territory. From the campaign trail, Clinton has called for a strategic pause in the negotiation of trade agreements. Meanwhile, in the Senate, she has launched a legislative effort aimed at reducing the dollar reserve holdings of strategic competitors such as China. Gaining distance from the NAFTA and WTO Uruguay Round years of President Bill Clinton, New York’s junior senator has now positioned herself on an interesting line that flirts with the protectionist left while still courting Wall Street donors. Clinton’s continued transformation on trade may prove one of the more interesting subplots of the autumn campaign.

Edwards: The former North Carolina senator draws on his populist credentials to court union and rural electoral support, making early campaign stops in the South and in key battleground states such as Michigan, appealing to labor and automotive interests. This month, the Edwards campaign launched a new “Smart and Safe” trade policy that presents familiar Democratic policy prescriptions, such as rejecting unfair trade agreements and providing a “level playing field” for trade. Edwards has updated his policies to match rhetoric that demonizes corporations and foreign countries, advocating the end of tax breaks for companies that offshore jobs, increasing attention to food safety and promoting country-of-origin labels to foster “safe” trade. Rather than create a legitimately new trade policy however, Edwards’ position simply recasts his populism to encompass new risks from economic interdependence. In political terms however, Edwards’ rhetoric has successfully defined the de facto themes of the leading Democrats on trade.

Obama: Illinois Senator Barack Obama portrays himself as a moderate on trade, seeking ways to enable U.S. workers to compete in the changing global economy rather than protect them from overseas competition and to provide assistance to those who do not benefit from globalization. He voted in favor of a free trade agreement with Oman, but opposed the CAFTA, arguing that it did less than previous agreements to protect domestic jobs. Like many of his Democratic colleagues, Obama supports market opening initiatives provided that environmental and labor standards are enforced, and would consider bilateral trade agreements on a “case-by-case basis.” The Obama campaign has yet to offer a comprehensive trade policy, resting instead on a measured critique of recent trade developments as evidence of the candidate’s beliefs. Richardson: Despite enjoying strong ties with local labor unions, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is a self-proclaimed “free-trader.” Like many of his fellow Democratic candidates, however, he is concerned that current agreements do not have ample safeguards in the areas of wage disparity and worker and environmental protections. As a member of Congress, Richardson was a staunch supporter of NAFTA, and as President Clinton’s U.S. Ambassador to the UN, advocated the hemispheric-wide Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Richardson’s history as a pragmatic problem-solver, both in the cabinet and as governor of a border state, would appear to indicate an ability and preference for compromise policies that balance economic growth, worker protections and the pressures associated with immigration.


GOP candidates are struggling to sell an outdated concept of free trade and have only lately, as the result of severe Democratic pressure, provided open acknowledgement of the political costs of globalization. The party is fighting to prevent Democratic trade reforms from becoming ensconced in law and thus may lack the capacity to define free trade in positive political terms for the electorate.

Giuliani: Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has arguably the least substantive experience on trade-related issues of any Republican candidate. According to his campaign advisors, Giuliani is supportive of free trade and presidential trade promotional authority. The former mayor recently said if elected president he would aggressively push for trade expansion by reducing corporate taxes and regulations. McCain: Senator John McCain’s voting record demonstrates consistently strong support for trade expansion. The Arizona senator was an ardent supporter of President Bush’s plan to build a free trade area in the Middle East, and early in his 2008 campaign, McCain outlined his desire for the pursuit of closer trade ties between the United States and Asia.

Romney: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is strongly opposed to protectionism, arguing that long term protectionist policies will have a devastating effect on the U.S. economy. Romney believes that trade expansion is the key to addressing poverty in Latin America and is necessary for strengthening U.S. ties with Asia.

Thompson: Though not yet a formal candidate, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson is a strong supporter of free trade who opposes what he views as the increasing protectionist behavior of the United States. His voting record during his time in the Senate demonstrates openness for trade expansion.