Are the Republicans Switching Places with the Democrats on Trade?



Simon Lester | CATO Institute

Until recently, conventional wisdom had it that the Republicans were the party of free trade while the Democrats were more inclined towards protectionism. There were always gaping holes in this characterization, as we never came close to free trade when the Republicans had power, and Democratic presidents often pursued a bit of trade liberalization. But it was probably fair to say that, on average, Republican politicians were more sympathetic to free trade than Democratic politicians were.

Is that all about to change? Are the parties switching places on trade? Consider this from a recent Washington Post article:

Republicans’ populist turn, breaking with the party’s laissez‐​faire past, has its roots in the last administration. Though he boasted of loosening regulations, Trump wielded federal powers to pick winners and losers throughout the economy.

He ordered power plants to purchase energy from uncompetitive coal and nuclear plants and let the Commerce Department choose which companies could avoid costly tariffs on industrial metals.

He also attacked companies, such as Amazon, General Motors and Harley Davidson for their business practices, including factory locations. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“The real fault line was trade. The party of free trade based in the suburbs became the party of quotas, tariffs and industrial policy based in rural America,” said Chris Krueger, a strategist with Cowen Washington Research Group. “It just flipped on its head.”

Trump definitely flipped a lot of things on their head. But it’s worth noting that Trump’s views didn’t come out of nowhere in the Republican Party. Back in 1992, Pat Buchanan ran for the GOP presidential nomination on a platform that mirrored Trump’s anti‐​trade (and anti‐​immigration) rhetoric, and he generated a fair amount of support. To paraphrase George Will, some people might even say that it took 24 years to count the votes from that GOP election, and Buchanan won.

But is this a permanent shift in the dominant view of trade within the Republican Party? Or are we just in the midst of a personality cult that will fade soon?

It will probably take a few more election cycles to be sure. My instinct, though, is that we are likely to go back to something like the recent historical norm, with Republicans pushing (albeit modestly) for freer trade, and the Democrats controlled by their protectionist interest groups and politicians. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of trade as an issue when many polls show it’s not something voters care that much about. As my colleague Scott Lincicome summarized the polling on trade policy back in 2018:

Recent public opinion polling uniformly reveals that, first, foreign trade and globalization are generally popular, and in fact more popular today than at any point in recent history; second, a substantial portion of the American electorate has no strong views on U.S. trade policy or trade agreements; third, and likely due to the previous point, polls on trade fluctuate based on partisanship or the state of the U.S. economy; and, fourth, Americans’ views on specific trade policies often shift depending on question wording, especially when the actual costs of protectionism are mentioned.

Recent polling done during the pandemic confirms some of these trends, with the economic uncertainty seeming to lead to a modest increase in trade skepticism, although support is still at historically high levels. Republican support for trade has dropped over the last several years, but there is still a significant bloc within the party that is pro‐​trade.

Pat Buchanan was passionate about these issues, but he didn’t have the personality to take his protectionist positions very far: He could rile up his base but couldn’t bring additional Republican voters over to his side. It would be surprising if some of the other leaders (e.g. Josh Hawley) of this wing of the Republican party could do so either. But there should be no doubt they are going to keep up the effort, so Republicans who believe in free markets, competition, and openness will have to fight hard on these issues for the foreseeable future.

To read the full commentary from the CATO Institute, please click here.