This election has been toxic for trade

Every year, as we celebrate Columbus Day — as we did last week — navigation of unchartered trade waters comes to mind.

In his famous voyage, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492 to find a western trade route to China. As a well-known ditty goes:

Christopher Columbus didn’t know where he was going.
Didn’t know where he was when he got there.
Didn’t know where had been when he got back.

However, the accomplishment of Columbus was actually quite incredible. He discovered a new trade route to unchartered territory, and international business would soon open up. For years after he left the shores of the Bahamas, trade became the key vehicle for progress and growth around the world.

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Fortunately, for us, there are still people on Capitol Hill that understand that trade equals growth. In fact, as we close the current cycle on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), many serious proponents and opponents are eager to discuss the future of international business.

However, in spite of positive dialogue, it does remain sad to most progressives that this bitter election cycle has turned trade into the fodder of a reality show, and trade is now a target that serves only to pinpoint voter frustration with government.

As the race for the White House escalates, trade has been clearly equated to job loss, and our current trade deals are deemed to be unworkable. It doesn’t matter that much of the information presented is skewed, or flat-out wrong. What matters is that the speaker’s talking point are heard, and that the crowds cheer.

To quote GOP nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE:

“Free trade can be wonderful, if you have smart people, but we have people that are stupid.””We’re ripped off by everybody, every country, including China, big league. Including Mexico. … We don’t have our best and our brightest negotiating for us.”

To quote Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE:

“We’re going to start having trade agreements that not only have strong environmental and labor standards, but also a trade timeout. We’re going to look and see what’s working and what’s not working. I’d like to have a trade prosecutor to actually enforce the trade agreements that we have, before we enter into any others.”

So Trump is a free trader who wants better deals (which he calls “fair trade”). Clinton wants smart trade, that is also fair.

Clinton does have a voting record on trade, and courts labor and environmental groups to help establish her position. Trump has no voting record on trade, and courts only groups that are angry at trade, without understanding what trade means (other than the image of factories moving offshore).

In terms of the TPP, Clinton had once said that she had hoped that the agreement would emulate the gold standard and says “any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages.” Trump says TPP is a horrible deal and he would rather not have it.

So where does this banter leave us in terms of a road map for future generations?

The truth is that we are likely in the homestretch on TPP. It is possible that the deal will pass in the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress. However, we all have to be realistic about the chances for passage, as there are some major unsettled issues (biologics, investor-state disputes, etc.), and there is also the problem of a tight time window in which to get it done.

So matter what eventually happens in the lame-duck session, we need to think about what TPP would look like in a Clinton or Trump administration.

If Clinton wins, expect little action on TPP for some time. Her team is adamantly opposed to bringing it up. New deals on trade will require a higher set of standards. We can also expect some major enforcement actions on existing programs.

If Trump wins, expect all 5,000-plus pages of the TPP deal to end up in or near the trash can. He says he wants to work on trade, but his core idea is to renegotiate everything that we already have.

Make no mistake: This election cycle has created a toxic trade environment. Whatever the election outcome, the logical conclusion is that the era of mega-trade deals has come to a close. We seem to be incapable of painting any trade scenario with a big brush. It appears that government will be more inclined to create one-on-one (country-to-country) bilateral trade partnerships as these transactions are easier to understand, and certainly easier to get through Congress.

Obama had it right when he said that the United States is less than 5 percent of the world’s population. No matter who wins the election, the bottom line for America remains the same:

If we can’t trade, we can’t grow.

Helfenbein is president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association and is a strong advocate for a robust U.S. trade agenda and for “Made in USA.” He lectures frequently on the subjects of politics and international trade. Follow him on Twitter @rhelfen.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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