Voting “yes” on trade is hard for Democrats — but necessary

Trade policy signals a country’s ability to engage with the world and to lead.

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A debate over free trade is looming in Washington and will have a major impact on our country’s economic growth strategy moving forward. The issue has already drawn attention because it’s an area where the Republican majority in the Senate may actually help President Obama, whose trade policies have more vocal support among Republicans than Democrats.

Though many free-trade breakthroughs have occurred in Democratic administrations — from Franklin Roosevelt’s liberalization during the New Deal to the North American Free Trade Agreement under President Clinton — trade is a hard vote for Democrats. And it has become harder as globalization has impacted jobs and wages in some parts of the economy. Those of us who believe that trade is vital to our economic future are looking to President Obama to change that narrative, and Democrats in Congress as well as Republicans should listen with open minds.

Congress is soon expected to take up legislation that would grant the administration Trade Promotion Authority. This authority allows the president to send a trade agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote without the ability to add crippling amendments that could kill the deal.

There are powerful reasons to support trade agreements. One of every five American jobs is tied to exports, and the jobs generally pay better (up to almost 20 percent) than non-export-related jobs. U.S. exports finished a fifth straight record-breaking year in 2014, despite a stronger dollar. Although currency fluctuations can make exports more or less attractive in the short run, one fact won’t change: 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders. As the U.S. economy continues to improve, expanding trade can create more rewarding middle-class jobs.

The U.S. economy is already one of the most open in the world. The goal of current talks is to lower barriers in other countries, and to raise foreign protection of the environment, workers’ rights and intellectual property. President Obama is right to describe a more level playing field that improves conditions abroad and increases opportunities for American businesses as a “model for trade in the 21st century.”

Democrats can press for well-drawn trade pacts without turning their backs on those hurt in a changing economy. Labor unions, reflecting deep concerns about wage stagnation and outsourcing, have traditionally opposed trade deals and have urged Democratic lawmakers to follow suit.

But the answer to the global economy’s challenges is not to run from them. We should invest more in training and education. Businesses that profit from trade should pass on benefits in higher wages. Simply opposing free trade will not hide the facts of globalization, which overall have improved the lives of millions of Americans.

When trade-promotion authority came up in Congress last year, Senate Democrats blocked it. Doing so again would be bad policy and bad politics. Now the minority in both houses, congressional Democrats can draw a sharp contrast with the Republicans’ hyperpartisan, defeat-at-any-cost tactics. Instead, Democrats can be a constructive force for elevating the discussion and giving President Obama an important bipartisan accomplishment.

Most Americans want Congress to work across party lines to get things done. Trade is an opportune place to start.

Ultimately, trade policy is about much more than domestic politics or even the economy. It signals a country’s ability to engage with the world and to lead. Mr. Obama has staked U.S. influence in Asia to passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact with 11 countries that account for 40 percent of the global economy. It is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy and a matter of national security. Failure would carry a very high price.

A modified version of this piece was published in The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 6, 2015.

Thomas F. ‘Mack’ McLarty was White House Chief of Staff and special envoy for the Americas under President Bill Clinton. He currently serves as Chairman of McLarty Associates, an international strategic advisory firm.

This piece also appears in Ideas Lab.

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