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The Candidates on Trade

July 30, 2008


Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

The presidential campaign unfolded during a period of major tests to U.S. free trade policy. With the surge in the U.S. trade deficit to China, the growing practice of outsourcing jobs to countries like India, and deep concerns about the fallout in U.S. manufacturing towns, free trade is the subject of increasing skepticism.

During President Bush’s time in office, the Doha round of global trade talks foundered. But Congress approved several Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) between the United States and smaller countries including, Oman, Chile, and Singapore. It also narrowly approved the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Deals with Panama and South Korea are also in the works. Though many of the candidates claim to be in favor of free trade, their rhetoric and voting records vary. Issues of fair trade, enforcement of labor standards, and trade policy towards African and Latin American economies will likely remain in the forefront of legislative debate as the presidential campaigns pick up steam.

Democratic Ticket on Trade

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama generally supports free trade policies, though he has expressed concern about free trade agreements that do not include labor and environmental protections. In a February 2008 speech at the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, Obama said he "will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers." In June 2008, Obama blamed a jump in the U.S. trade deficit on "policies that reflect unprecedented fiscal irresponsibility and borrowing from abroad" and promised to adopt a trade policy that "serves the interests not just of multinational corporations but of America's hardworking families."

Obama has called NAFTA a "bad" trade deal. In an August 2007 Democratic debate, Obama said he would meet with the Canadian and Mexican heads of state to "try to amend NAFTA," saying the agreement "should reflect the principle that our trade should not just be good for Wall Street, but should also be good for Main Street" (see video).

In a February 2008 Democratic debate, Obama said he would "make sure that we renegotiate" NAFTA and use "the hammer of a potential opt-out" of NAFTA as leverage to ensure enforceable labor and environmental protections. Still, in February 2008, Obama said he does not think "it's realistic for us to repeal NAFTA," because that could lead to "more job loss ... than job gains." (ABC)

Obama voted to approve the 2006 FTA with Oman. He opposed CAFTA, however, explaining in 2005, "It does less to protect labor than previous trade agreements, and does little to address enforcement of basic environmental standards in the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic." Obama did not vote on the 2007 Peru FTA, but expressed support for the deal (AP).

In a March 2008 speech, Obama said he would oppose a free trade agreement with Columbia, because "the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements." Obama has also criticized the U.S.-South Korea FTA, which he said is "bad for American workers." The deal "would give Korean exports essentially unfettered access to the U.S. market and would eliminate our best opportunity for obtaining genuinely reciprocal market access in one of the world's largest economies,'' Obama wrote in May 2008.

Obama has criticized China for manipulating its currency, and in June 2007 urged Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to take action against China. "At least partially as a result of the Administration's failure to address Chinese currency manipulation, the U.S. imported more than $232 billion in goods from China than we sold to it last year," he wrote.

In March 2008, Obama praised the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Reform Act, which requires that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examine the CPSC's monitoring of goods imported to the United States, and make recommendations to improve safety and regulation. "We must ensure that the CPSC has every tool available to effectively regulate imported products in today's global marketplace and protect our most vulnerable citizens from dangerous products," Obama said.

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE) in general espouses free trade policies but has been a recent critic of Bush administration bilateral and regional agreements on opening markets. He voted against the creation of FTAs with Oman in 2006 and with Singapore and Chile in 2003. He also voted against the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005. All of those bills were passed in the Senate. Biden criticized CAFTA, as well as the Singapore and Chile bilateral deals because, he said, they lacked effective provisions to ensure enforcement of labor and environmental standards.

Biden also voted against the Trade Act of 2002, which reauthorized the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), granting certain trade benefits to Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In 1999, Biden voted in favor of the Africa Free Trade bill, which authorized a "new trade and investment policy for sub-Sahara Africa" and the granting of trade benefits to Caribbean countries. Through that bill, the U.S. tied trade benefits for sub-Saharan African countries to those countries' free market and democratic policies. Biden also voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993.

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Republican Ticket on Trade

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) views trade and national security as "interconnected" (AP). He voted in favor of NAFTA in 1994 and continues to firmly support the trade deal. McCain criticized his Democratic opponents for their attacks on NAFTA, and said threatening to renegotiate or withdraw from NAFTA (ABC) could "affect Canadian public opinion adversely," and could thereby cause Canada to withdraw its military support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. In a May 2008 speech, McCain promised that if he is elected, the United States will "honor its international agreements, including NAFTA, and we will expect the same of others."

McCain sees trade as especially important as a means to open "closed societies" in the Middle East. "Its past time for nations of the Middle East to join the global economy, and for rulers to lead increasingly restive populations in the direction of democracy and free markets," he said in 2003. McCain supported Bush's plan to build a free trade area in the Middle East by 2013.

McCain has been a consistent supporter of free trade legislation, achieving a top rating by the pro-trade Cato Institute. He voted in favor of free trade acts with Oman, Australia, Chile, and Singapore. He voted to approve CAFTA. McCain also supports the pending South Korea FTA, which he says will help maintain strategic partnership between that country and the United States.

McCain supports the pending free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia. "The stability of Colombia is more critical than ever as others in the region seek to turn Latin America away from democracy and away from our country," McCain said in May 2008.

In February 2008, McCain called free trade "the future of America's economy" (CBC) and warned against protectionism. In a July 2008 speech, McCain said protectionism "not only puts a hidden tax on almost everything you buy, but it undermines American competitiveness and costs jobs." Still, McCain added, "I understand free trade is not a positive for everyone." He proposed reforms to the U.S. unemployment insurance and worker retraining programs to account for job loss resulting from outsourcing. McCain said the United States should use community colleges "to help train workers for specific opportunities in their communities." His plan would also help older workers "who have lost a job that won't come back." The government will "help make up the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower paid one until they've completed retraining and found secure new employment at a decent wage," he said.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on Trade

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

In general a supporter of free trade, Sen. Clinton (D-NY) has parted ways with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on several trade-related issues. She has expressed skepticism about aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, which he supported, and has taken less enthusiastic positions on the benefits of globalization more generally. In a February 2008 Democratic debate, Clinton said she has "been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning," but that she did not make her objections to it public because "I was part of the administration." She pledged to renegotiate NAFTA to ensure better labor and environmental protection. She said she would change NAFTA's "investment provisions that grant special rights to foreign companies" and will strengthen its "strengthening its enforcement mechanisms." She also said she would review NAFTA "regularly."

In March 2000, Clinton said NAFTA "was flawed," and that the United States "didn't get everything we should have got out of it." Four years earlier, the AP says Clinton described NAFTA as beneficial to workers. "That's what a free and fair trade agreement like NAFTA is all about," she said.

In her 2003 memoir, Living History, Clinton wrote, "Creating a free trade zone in North America — the largest free trade zone in the world — would expand U.S. exports, create jobs and ensure that our economy was reaping the benefits, not the burdens, of globalization. Although unpopular with labor unions, expanding trade opportunities was an important administration goal."

Clinton voted in support of the creation of FTAs with Chile, Singapore, and Oman. But she criticized the FTAs with Chile and Singapore for what she said was their weak enforcement of International Labor Organization (ILO) standards. She said “the labor provisions in the Chile and Singapore agreements should not be used as a model for future trade agreements.” Clinton voted against CAFTA and the Trade Act of 2002. In 2004, Clinton voted for the United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act, which she said “offers greater access to Australian markets for U.S. manufacturers.” Clinton spoke out against the pending FTA with South Korea (Reuters), which she called "inherently unfair," particularly for the U.S. auto industry. She has also criticized FTAs with Colombia and Panama. Clinton expressed support, on the other hand, for the FTA with Peru, which passed in the Senate in December 2007.

In April 2008, Clinton said she disapproved of the pending U.S.-Colombia trade deal. "I oppose signing any trade deal with Colombia while violence against trade unionists continues and the perpetrators are not brought to justice," Clinton said. She pledged to vote against the FTA in Senate.

Clinton said she would have implemented a "time-out" on trade for the first several months of her presidency to "provide an opportunity to systematically review every trade agreement to ensure that it is delivering benefits to American workers," she said in November 2007.

Clinton also expresses concerns over U.S. trade practices with China. “We just can't keep doing what we did in the 20th century,” she said in a March 2007 interview (Bloomberg). In a February 2008 speech, Clinton said China has the upper hand in trade with the United States. "China's steel comes here and our jobs go there. We play by the rules and they manipulate their currency. We get tainted fish and lead-laced toys and poisoned pet food in return," she said, promising to take a "consistent approach" toward China trade if she is elected.

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

A self-described "free trader," Sen. Dodd (D-CT) nonetheless expressed mixed feelings on the negative effects of free trade in a speech on the CAFTA-DR Act of 2005. He voted against that act, citing the problems presented by globalization for countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala where poverty remains widespread.  “With CAFTA-DR, we are stepping backwards in a region of the world that needs a commitment to lift up the quality of life for its citizens," he said.

Dodd also voted against FTAs with Chile, Singapore and Oman, and against the Trade Act of 2002. He voted in favor of the Africa Free Trade bill of 2002 and NAFTA.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Edwards (D-NC) has been increasingly critical of free trade policies, arguing that they have diminished protections for labor and the environment. In October 2007, Edwards spoke against the FTA with Peru, which he says is simply an attempt to expand NAFTA. Upon that FTA's November 2007 passage in the House, Edwards said he was "disappointed," and criticized Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) for supporting the legislation. He also pledged to oppose efforts to create similar trade deals (FT) with Colombia and Panama.

Edwards has also criticized the Bush administration’s push for a trade agreement with South Korea. Edwards said in a February 2007 statement that “Bush should shut down all trade negotiations with South Korea until they prove their willingness to open their market to American automobiles and other U.S. products and agree to trade fairly.” As a senator, Edwards voted against the implementation of the FTA with Chile in 2003, and against the Africa Free Trade bill in 1999. But he voted in favor of the U.S.-China Relations Act in 2000. Edwards is critical of NAFTA, but he was not in Senate at the time of its passage in 1993. Forbes magazine, in an index examining candidate positions on critical campaign issues, ranks Edwards at the most liberal end of the Democratic spectrum on trade issues.

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

Gravel has called NAFTA “a disaster for the working class of both the U.S. and Mexico” and has said that it should be either changed significantly or repealed altogether. Gravel has called for an increased focus on fair trade “if we are to rebuild the American middle class.”

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) has been one of the most adamant congressional critics of free trade, saying it is responsible for lost jobs in the United States and abusive working conditions abroad. He voted against the creation of FTAs with Oman, Singapore, and Chile, and against the Trade Act of 2002. He says if elected, he will withdraw the United States from NAFTA immediately. In November 2007, Kucinich voted against legislation authorizing an FTA with Peru. That FTA passed in the House, however.

Kucinich also voted against the CAFTA Implementation Bill in 2005, saying, “trade agreements are seeking cheaper labor where they can go to countries where the labor is cheap, but they are not selling American goods there. So we are seeing that we are not finding new markets for our goods; yet, we are finding markets for cheap labor. That is what these trade agreements do.”

Kucinich voted in favor of a 2005 House resolution proposing U.S. withdrawal from the WTO. Although that resolution failed, he continues to advocate withdrawal. He also voted against the Africa Free Trade bill. Kucinich has generally voted against any bills that extend normal trade relations treatment to China. He voted against the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2002, which authorized the extension of normalized trade relations between the U.S. and China, as long as China agreed to join the World Trade Organization.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Gov. Richardson (D-NM) has called himself a “free trader” (Albuquerque Journal), though he has called for increased enforcement of labor standards and environmental protection in free trade agreements. As U.S. ambassador to the UN, Richardson praised free trade and the International Monetary Fund. He has particularly promoted free trade between the U.S. and Latin America, and was a leading voice in the push to create NAFTA in 1993. In a 1998 speech, Richardson called for legislation toward “creating a hemispheric-wide free trade agreement that will establish a $12 trillion market of 850 million people. This free trade zone will create jobs, open new markets and raise living standards from Ecuador to East Los Angeles.”

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on Trade

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

The pro-trade Club for Growth calls Sen. Brownback (R-KS) “one of the most consistent supporters of free trade in the U.S. Senate,” but criticizes (PDF) his support for a cap on foreign wheat gluten products and for the tariff on imported ethanol. Brownback voted for the FTAs with Oman, Chile, and Singapore. He also voted for CAFTA, an act which he said would likely help various industries in his state of Kansas. In 2004, he voted in favor of the U.S.-Australian Trade Act. Brownback voted for normal trade relations with China in 2000.

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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James S. Gilmore
Republican Primary Candidate

Gilmore’s stance on trade is not known.

Editor's note: Gilmore withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination in July 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani’s “Twelve Commitments to the American People” include statements in strong support of free trade. Giuliani pledges to “aggressively advance” free trade, focusing on three main elements: reducing tax burdens to improve the competitiveness of U.S. companies; reforming the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, toward the same end; and reinvigorating the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations. Giuliani's economic advisor, Stanford University’s Michael Boskin, says Giuliani supports free trade “but also wants to make sure countries such as China are playing fair,” according to an April 2007 report in the Business Journal of Phoenix. As mayor of New York City, Giuliani criticized NAFTA (Latin Business Chronicle), saying: “I continue to be concerned about the effect it [NAFTA] would have on the job situation.”

In an October 2007 Republican presidential debate, Giuliani spoke in support of the pending Free Trade Agreements with Peru, Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, saying they "would be good deals for the United States."

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

The Club for Growth calls Gov. Huckabee’s (R-AK) record on trade, including his support for free trade with Mexico and his forging of a trade pact between a South Korea trade group and his home state of Arkansas, “limited, but positive.” Huckabee has expressed concern that free trade can lead to unfair loss of American jobs, saying (Newton Daily News) in April 2007 that “If somebody in the presidency doesn’t begin to understand that we can’t have free trade if it’s not fair trade, we’re going to continually see people who have worked for 20 and 30 years for companies one day walk in and get the pink slip and told ‘I’m sorry but everything you spent your life working for is no longer here.’”

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA) has been characterized as a free trade skeptic, especially with regard to agreements with China. He opposed the creation of FTAs with Chile and Singapore, but voted in favor of the agreement with Oman in 2006. In November 2007, Hunter missed the House vote authorizing an FTA with Peru.

Hunter voted against both NAFTA and CAFTA, and has said (Manufacturing & Technology News) that both trade agreements were “bad deals” that he would “junk” if elected president. Hunter has opposed legislative efforts to extend normal trade relations to China—he voted in favor of House resolutions expressing disapproval of granting such status to China on several occasions.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX), who sits on the House Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy, Trade, and Technology, voted against free trade agreements with Oman, Chile, Singapore and Peru. He was a strong critic of CAFTA, of which he said "I believe in free trade, but this is not free trade. This is regulated, managed trade for the benefit of special interests." In 2005, Paul supported legislation that would have withdrawn U.S. approval for the World Trade Organization. On his campaign website, Paul criticizes the WTO, which, he says, "has forced Congress to change our laws, yet we still face trade wars." He has also been critical of NAFTA, which he says "is just one part of a plan to erase the borders between the U.S. and Mexico."

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Gov. Romney (R-MA) is pro-free trade (MSNBC). He is against protectionism, which, he said at a campaign speech in February 2007, "would virtually guarantee that America would become a second-tier economy in a couple of decades, with a second-class standard of living." Romney has also expressed support for trade with China. "We'd like to see more agreements, not fewer, to improve the economic well-being of our neighborhood," he said in a July 2007 speech. "Trade lifts all nations that participate." In October 2007, Romney named a trade policy advisory group for his campaign, which includes Columbia Business School Dean R. Glenn Hubbard and Manufacturers Alliance CEO Thomas Duesterberg, among others. "Expanding trade is pro-growth, pro-industry, pro-agriculture, and pro-American leadership in the world," Romney said at the time.

In December 2007, Romney outlined his "Conservative Blueprint for Strenghtening the Economy," which proposes the creation of a "Reagan Zone Of Economic Freedom," a bloc of nations "committed to open markets." The zone would include the European Union, "while challenging China." In his "Blueprint," Romney also said the president should have Trade Promotion Authority.

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo (R-CO) is a free trade skeptic, largely because of its potential effect on immigration to the United States. He was an outspoken opponent of CAFTA, which he said is “more than a just trade agreement about sugar and bananas; it is a thinly disguised immigration accord.” He was opposed to the creation of free trade agreements with Oman, Chile, and Singapore. Tancredo voted in favor of the 2005 House resolution proposing U.S. withdrawal from the WTO, as well as a similar 2000 resolution. Still, in November 2007, Tancredo was the only presidential candidate in the House to vote in favor of the FTA with Peru.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Fred Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson has taken a pro-free trade stance. As the Club for Growth notes (PDF), Thompson voted in favor of many free trade agreements during his time in Senate. He supported the Africa Free Trade Bill in 1999 and 2000. He also voted in favor of normalizing trade relations with Vietnam, and several times voted for trade promotion authority for the president. Thompson sat on a Senate subcommittee on international trade.

Thompson’s economic policy adviser is Lawrence Lindsey, former chief economic adviser to President Bush.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 22, 2008.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

As governor of Wisconsin, Thompson served as the chairman of the National Governor's Association Committee on International Trade and Foreign Relations. In 1991, he wrote an article for Business America urging his fellow governors to play a larger role in international trade.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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