Understanding Senators Kerry And Edwards On Trade Policy: Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 00:00

The news on July 6 that Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry (MA) had selected North Carolina Democratic Senator John Edwards to be his vice-presidential running mate in the November 2 U.S. elections did not come as a surprise to policy analysts in Washington, D.C. Kerry needed a running mate with charisma, strong ties to the South, and broader appeal within the Democratic party and among independent voters. With Edwards, Kerry got all of that and more.

In the area of trade policy, Edwards, despite his protectionist campaign rhetoric, was a good choice for Kerry. He is much less controversial than former Vermont Governor Howard Dean on such issues, and far more moderate on trade than either Representatives Richard Gephardt (D-MI) or Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). Still, the media question his trade politics, and some critics question where he might come out on complicated issues such as completing the Doha Round of trade negotiations or trade with China as a key player in a Kerry-Edwards administration.

Comparing Kerry And Edwards On Trade Policy

Throughout his Senate career of almost 20 years, Senator John Kerry has not focused on trade as an issue. Although he is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, and even of its Subcommittee on International Trade, Kerry has placed far greater emphasis on his membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Unlike Kerry, Edwards has been outspoken on trade-related issues, since North Carolina has been hard hit by foreign competition in sectors like textiles and furniture. Beyond trade, Edwards has served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but unlike Kerry he has little foreign policy experience or expertise. He has been virtually unknown outside the United States during his six years in office and has not been tested in any difficult international situation.

Both Kerry and Edwards have strong liberal voting records. On trade issues, however, Kerry's record reflects a respect for open trade and free markets that many of his liberal Democratic colleagues have not shared. It is interesting that while Edwards, too, has voted for a number of trade initiatives, he is being attacked as anti-business. On July 7, outgoing NAM President Jerry Jasinowski said in a press statement that "Senator John Kerry has chosen a running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, whose voting record in Congress demonstrates conspicuous hostility to manufacturing and business." Most of this hostility grows from Edwards' background as a trial lawyer, and his resulting positions on litigation reform issues, rather than trade.

Kerry and Edwards both voted in favor of normal trade relations status for Vietnam and China. Kerry voted for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation in both 1997 and 2000; Edwards did not support TPA in 2000. Both Senators supported legislation to grant trade preferences to the Andean nations and other developing nations. For Edwards, this indicates that his commitment to trade restrictions favoring traditional North Carolina industries such as furniture and textiles and to organized labor is often tempered by what appears to be a desire to expand trade, especially to promote growth in developing countries.

Kerry's trade positions have not changed significantly since he became a presidential candidate. His official trade position does not mention "fair trade" or even "enforcement of the trade laws." Rather, he emphasizes programs to train American students and workers in new skills as a means of keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States. In a speech last fall, Kerry emphasized that U.S. presidents have to understand "how to use the power that we have as the world's biggest marketplace to properly leverage the kind of behavior we want."

Edwards' protectionist trade policy rhetoric throughout the primary campaign was just that - rhetoric. He focused attention on trade policy during the primary campaign only to appeal to a certain type of voter and distinguish himself from Kerry. As evidenced by his failure to win more than one primary, his protectionist rhetoric did not pay off, even in states that were among the hardest hit economically by the downturn in manufacturing.

Kerry has pledged that upon taking office he will undertake a 120-day review of all U.S. trade agreements to ensure that countries are living up to their "labor and environmental obligations," and that those agreements are "enforceable and balanced for America's workers." However, Kerry has made it clear that his objective would be to "fix" them, rather than to cancel them. Although Edwards opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Kerry concedes that canceling NAFTA would be "disastrous."

Both Kerry and Edwards, like all the Democratic candidates, have indicated that they would oppose future trade agreements unless they contain stronger commitments on environmental protection and labor standards.

Looking Ahead

Heading into the fall phase of the presidential campaign, both Senators Kerry and Edwards in their speeches will probably temper their rhetoric and express more moderate positions on trade, as they will be appealing to a much broader constituency, including many Americans who owe their jobs to imports or exports. Despite the inherent pressures that come to bear on any Democratic administration from labor and other interest groups, if the Kerry-Edwards ticket is elected, it would be surprising if they did not ultimately show some sensitivity to the concerns of the business community and therefore act carefully on trade issues.

While Democratic rhetoric on trade with China is often quite confrontational, experience indicates that once an administration takes office, no matter what the party, the realities of U.S.-China trade quickly temper perspectives. As an exporter, an importer, and a potential market for U.S. manufacturers, China is simply too massive to be treated as an "outlier."

The one area in which a Kerry-Edwards administration might be expected to depart significantly from the trade policies of the Bush administration would be in the aggressive effort to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) with a wide range of U.S. trading partners. Democratic Party concerns about labor and the environment, as well as sector-specific issues that FTA negotiations raise would simply be too strong for a Kerry-Edwards administration to ignore.

Ultimately, a Kerry-Edwards administration will approach trade issues much like that of President Clinton - recognizing the political and economic importance of the U.S. manufacturing sector, but seeking as much objective economic analysis of claims about unfair competition and subsidies as possible and looking for the least controversial means of dealing with such issues. This would be especially true of Kerry because he would be aware of the experiences of Presidents Clinton and Bush on sectoral trade issues. His view would also be influenced by the recent strength of the consuming industries in arguing against trade restrictions, as well as the WTO losses the United States has suffered over various trade cases.

Russell L. Smith is Special Counsel, Government Relations Department, in the Washington, DC office of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP; Caroline G. Cooper is an International Trade Specialist in the International Trade Department of Willkie's Washington, DC office.

Please email the authors at rsmith@willkie.com or ccooper@willkie.com with questions about this article.