The End of So-Called "Free Trade" Has Arrived

Yes, it was the Iraq War, stupid. But, one of the other issues I kept hearing voters talk about repeatedly for the past several months was the idiocy of so-called "free trade." And, thankfully, perhaps we can finally declare so-called "free trade" dead.

The first thing to say is that what we really would be doing is laying to rest a marketing phrase. There is no such thing as "free trade," certainly not whatever was envisioned by the economic theorist David Ricardo. But, everyone likes something "free" and the idea of trading reminds people of giving up a favorite baseball card. The truth is that these nutty trade agreements have been about one thing: corporate investment rights.

All across the country, opposition to corporate trade agreements played a role in the economic messages put forth by candidates. Heath Schuler, who is fairly conservative on social issues, made the loss of jobs in North Carolina due to so-called "free trade" a central point in his successful ousting of Republican Charles Taylor. To be sure, the Mark Foley scandal played some role in putting Rep. Tom Reynolds (NY) on the defensive. But, as I pointed just before the Foley scandal broke, his challenger, Jack Davis, was making a second run at Reynolds almost entirely based on Davis' opposition to NAFTA. Reynolds, the chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, barely survived. In the open Iowa 1st District seat, the Democrat Bruce Braley seized a Republican-held seat in a campaign in which he argued that we need a new trade policy that is fair to workers and farmers.

On the Senate side, incoming Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has been a long-time opponent of so-called "free trade" in the House (he even wrote a book about it called "Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed"). Newly-elected Senators Bob Casey, Claire McCaskill and Bernie Sanders ran television ads on trade, as did--cross our fingers here--Senators-in-waiting Jim Webb and Jon Tester. This is good news because, in the past, Senate Democrats have been far more inclined to support so-called "free trade" than their counterparts in the House.

The other side of the political calculation is how we may have blown some pick-up opportunities because of stupid decision on trade legislation. Check out the race between Republican Robin Hayes and Democrat Larry Kissell--a race that has not been called yet with Hayes leading by less than 500 votes. As I pointed out, by letting 22 Democrats vote "yes" on the Oman Free Trade Agreement, the Democratic leadership let Hayes get a pass and vote "no" on OFTA. Forcing these Republicans to vote "yes" on OFTA would have given Kissell another club to hammer Hayes. While that may be viewed as just one issue, it might end up being the difference in this race.

All this should tell Democrats that they can throw so-called "free trade" over the side. It's over. They certainly have no political reason to let Republicans try to shove through the pending so-called "free trade" agreement with Peru in a lame-duke session of Congress (Public Citizen has set up a website called Lame Duck Hunt to follow such potential nonsense).

Of course, ridding our economic system of these disastrous agreements won't be easy, even as the people have clearly rejected so-called "free trade." The Democratic Party is awash in pro-so-called "free trade" corporate money and its top leaders were making pre-election claims that there would not be any "business bashing" in a Democratic-led Congress. We'll likely have to endure future columns by the chattering elites like multi-millionaire New York Times columnist Tom Friedman who will continue to ramble on about the virtues of so-called "free trade."

But, by doing so, those elites are politically tone-deaf. For the benefit of our citizens and people all over the planet, and, yes, for the political future of the Democratic Party, it's time to drive a stake through pro-corporate trade agreements. Now, let the debate begin over how we should fashion fair and responsible trade.