As I've written previously, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are probably sincere in their claims to oppose free trade and free-trade agreements, while Hillary Clinton's opposition is probably opportunistic and fake.
The Republican side, now that we're down to two real candidates, seems to be symmetrical: Ted Cruz is also posturing at opposing free trade, but I don't think he really means it. He's bobbing and weaving and trying to square the circle.
Sen. Cruz's position is basically that free trade, considered purely as economic policy, is good, but the specific trade issues that are live right now or recently, namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), are bad.
(The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an awful trade agreement with 12 Pacific-Rim nations. Trade Promotion Authority, formerly known as Fast Track, is an unconstitutional delegation of Congress's power to make treaties to the President.)
The problem with Cruz's position is not that it's philosophically incoherent. On free trade, as on any other issue, one can be in favor of a thing and yet oppose a specific proposal to implement it. That is a position on this issue that has been taken many times before by other people, most notably 2008 Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, who supported free trade in principle but opposed NAFTA on Constitutional grounds. It's no different than being generically in favor of a strong defense, but against a particular weapons program.
The problem is that Cruz has been flippy and disingenuous about it.
Seeing Trump's success opposing free trade, he's obviously noted that the policy has lost its popularity with Republican primary voters, so he needs marquee issues on which to rail against it. But he's still determined to remain acceptable to the establishment, so he supports it in substance.
This has, of course, consistently been Cruz's political persona across the board. He's sold himself as a Tea Party populist and "outsider" true conservative in a Washington of compromisers, but underneath, he's as Princeton-Harvard-Goldman Sachs as anyone on the Hill. His strategy has been to be the candidate acceptable to both sides.
Here's what Cruz said in his own editorial announcing his change of heart on the TPA:
As a general matter, I agree (as did Ronald Reagan) that free trade is good for America; when we open up foreign markets, it helps American farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers. But TPA in this Congress has become enmeshed in corrupt Washington backroom deal-making, along with serious concerns that it would open up the potential for sweeping changes in our laws that trade agreements typically do not include.
This came after an April 21, 2015, op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in which Cruz and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), now House Speaker, urged Congress to pass TPA.
The key phrase above is "typically do not include." This is just false. America's trade agreements have for (at least) 20 years included commitments that interfere with our right to frame our own domestic laws. Cruz has a law degree, and it's impossible for him not to know this.
Cruz's big specific concern, he says, is that TPA, because it would also cover the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), would affect America's control over its immigration laws. (Cruz says he suddenly learned this from WikiLeaks.) Immigration isn't my issue, so I have no comments on the merits here, but this does mean Cruz isn't opposing TPA because of trade.
Similarly, Cruz has said he won't support the TPP unless the Republican leadership commits to killing the Import-Export Bank, which wouldn't exist in an ideal world but which America needs to counterbalance the trade subsidies of foreign nations by giving subsidized loans to our own exporters. Again, free trade itself isn't his objection: crony capitalism is.
Cruz has also engaged in some fancy procedural footwork to obfuscate his de facto support of TPA. The details are legislative arcana, but there's a good summary here.
So much for his touted claim to be the "consistent conservative" in the race. Conservative isn't my job to judge, but consistent he's not.
Full disclosure: I knew Ted personally a long time ago, before he was famous, when he was just a fancy conservative lawyer, though I've not been close to him in years. Being somewhat privy to who he really is, I don't find him as sinister as his critics. I think he's just an ambitious right-wing yuppie who says and does whatever it takes, given his available choices, to attain high office. Oddly enough, I don't find his disingenuousness offensive on a personal level: guys like him have to reconcile a lot of contradictory demands, from the public and the party elders both, to get ahead, and he's just playing a game other people wrote the rules of. It's strange to feel compassion for one's political opponents, but there it is. If the public wants to be told the truth, it should stop voting down everyone who tells it something it doesn't want to hear.