Trade and the election
by Nelson Balido
With both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the books, I thought it would be useful to look at the role trade played in each party’s three-night infomercials to the American electorate and how trade is likely to figure into races both on a local and national level in November.
Trade is a subject that is, admittedly, a little on the wonky side. We’re not likely to hear many pro or anti-trade stem-winders on the stump in these final two months leading up to Election Day. But with the majority of voters citing jobs and the economy as their top issues this election, trade can’t help but figure into the subtext of candidates’ pitches to voters.
For border state voters, trade and, more specifically, our trading relationship with Mexico and Canada, is more likely than in other parts of the country to figure into voters’ calculus when they fill out their ballots simply because of our proximity to an international border and because of trade’s importance to our local economy.
For a state that can hardly be considered in play for the president, south Texas certainly got its share of the spotlight at both conventions. The brothers Castro got primetime speaking spots, with San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro wowing delegates and a national TV audience, burnishing his reputation as a rising star in national Democrat circles.
San Antonio Rep. Charlie Gonzalez used his time at the Democratic convention to blast the Romney campaign on immigration and fire up Latinos, albeit with fairly traditional Democrat talking points.
On the Republican side, we saw Senate nominee Ted Cruz get a turn behind the microphone, as well as Rep. Quico Canseco, who finds himself in that rare competitive Texas U.S. House race. Voters also got a chance to hear from El Paso native and a rising star in her own right, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who rose to governor after serving as the district attorney in a border county.
Lost in the hubbub over former President Bill Clinton’s nominating speech at the DNC, was that President Clinton was (and presumably still is) a strong supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement. For all the pro-union sign-waving that television viewers saw from Charlotte, Clinton’s embrace of NAFTA marked a seminal moment for the Democratic Party in shaking off its one-time fealty to the protectionist Big Labor lobby.
From the convention podium, trade was addressed perhaps most directly at the RNC gathering when Ohio Sen. Rob Portman criticized the Obama administration for dragging its feet on negotiating new trade agreements. For the Democrats, U.S. Rep. and Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin touched on an issue that she’s been flogging on the campaign trail; that China is “cheating” on trade and should be sanctioned. (See my last column for why trade wars rarely turn out well.)
The party platforms, while mostly the domain of party activists and rarely paid attention to by the average voter, do include references to trade. The RNC document laments bottlenecks at the nation’s ports, and cites international trade as vital to prosperity. The DNC platform touts President Obama’s work on new agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama and the need to protect U.S. intellectual property overseas.
When given the chance, voters will back trade. We’ve already seen in this election that trade is not a totally ethereal subject in voters’ minds. I recently had the chance to visit with former El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke, who bested longtime El Paso-area U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes in this summer’s Democratic primary. Throughout his campaign, O’Rourke reminded voters of trade’s importance to the area and why facilitating trade is vital to El Paso’s economic health. It was a message the resonated with the district’s voters.
I realize in an election about who has done what to Medicare and which party will expand the middle class, subjects like ports of entry, border infrastructure and fights over imported tomatoes are not what candidates are going to talk about in TV commercials to get out the vote. But if jobs and the economy are what you’re most concerned about this election, then I would urge you to cast your vote for candidates who most strongly make the pro-trade case.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance