PROTECTIONIST POLITICS: OLD SCRIPT, NEW ACTORS

Byline: Jim Ostroff

WASHINGTON — If Patrick J. Buchanan’s call for megaduties on Asian imports to protect endangered industries such as textiles and apparel resonates among dissatisfied workers, it should come as no surprise. It has been a classic election tactic for a century now.
Take the ’96 campaign — 1896, that is. Williams Jennings Bryan, the populist, silver-tongued orator, was nearly swept into the White House with his electrifying promise that “the poor working man” would not be “crucified on a cross of gold” to please Wall Street. While not a true free-trader, Bryan preached a more open economy.
However, what turned the tide was the drum beat for protectionism. The father of the 1890 Tariff that greatly curtailed imports, William McKinley, promised more, and for 51 percent of the electorate, that was enough.
When Ronald Reagan’s 1980 White House bid was foundering, he promised that if elected he would limit the growth rate of fabric and apparel imports to the overall growth of the U.S. market. Reagan went on to demolish Jimmy Carter in the South and then ignored his pledge. Despite that, he carried the South again in 1984.
Four years later, Bob Dole sought to make hay in textile states by supporting a textile import limitation bill, only to lose key Southern primaries to George Bush, who touted free trade.
In the midst of the current campaign, the politicians are at it again. Buchanan is fanning the flames of protectionism and bringing the issue to the forefront of the Republican primaries, and just last week President Clinton promised that this month he would ask Congress to grant the Caribbean Basin’s apparel manufacturers free trade parity with Mexico — to the cheers of most domestic textile and apparel firms who operate in the Caribbean.
Was the timing of Clinton’s pledge a coincidence?
“Hardly,” said one U.S. textile maker, who did not want to be identified. “Presidential elections, textiles and trade go together like a horse and carriage.”
— Fairchild News Service

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