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Election 2012: the Candidates on Trade

(Disclaimer: Public Citizen has no preference among candidates for office.)


With the budget and other scandals dominating political discourse, little space has remained for discussion of trade policy among possible presidential candidates.

To fill this void we decided to examine exactly where the politicians fall on key trade issues:


Although foreign policy hasn’t always been her strong suit, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is pretty confident about her views on trade. Bachmann interrupted her presidential campaign and broke a streak of 88 absences to cast a vote in favor of the free trade deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama. In a press release she writes that these deals will “spur economic growth… without cost to taxpayers.” Notably, the representative voted against Trade Adjustment Assistance, which would provide support for workers displaced by the deals. Bachmann also voted against Fast Track cancellation in 2008 and in favor of the Peru trade deal in 2007.

In a blog post urging lawmakers to pass the Korea, Colombia and Panama trade deals, Bachmann writes that the “role of free trade as an expression of liberty….signifies the very principles our country was founded upon.” Unfortunately, these trade deals were negotiated under Fast Track, leaving Congress no authority to amend the agreements. (The constitution, or the document our country was actually founded upon, outlines a system of checks and balances granting Congress the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations”).

A self-proclaimed proponent of free trade in its most pure form, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) opposes NAFTA-style trade deals because they erode U.S. sovereignty and are unconstitutional. He has voted against almost every trade deal that has surfaced during his tenure in office, including Peru, Oman, Bahrain, CAFTA, Australia, Singapore and Chile. Paul has also been an advocate of withdrawing from the World Trade Organization.

Paul didn’t show up to vote against the most recent trade deals with Korea, Panama, and Colombia, nor an earlier one with Morocco. His son Rand Paul, a Tea Party senator from Kentucky, voted in favor of all three, despite the fact that he campaigned on a platform opposing the WTO and NAFTA-style trade deals.


Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.), who has described himself as a “fair-trader” and a “free-trader” in the same sentence, has been a hard-liner for expansive trade policies.

Perry advocated for NAFTA as governor, and in a 2001 speech he praised the trade deal for its economic gains. He declared that it is a matter of “economic fact that free trade lifts the tide for all the boats in the harbor.” In 2003 and 2005 the governor signed letters binding Texas to government procurement rules for a variety of trade pacts.

In his 2001 speech he also demonstrated strong support for the NAFTA trucking program, calling it a “protectionist policy that forbids Mexican trucks from U.S. roadways.” He has come under fire for his unwavering support of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a $183.5 million pet-project funded by the corporation Cintra that would facilitate trucking trade between Mexico to the United States. The project elicited strong public disapproval and was eventually terminated.

Perry concedes that “our trade policies haven’t been working for families for years,” though his campaign platform does not seem to offer any suggestions for improvement.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) has made his commitment to “free” trade very clear. However, unlike most of his counterparts, he has pledged to hold China accountable. In an opinion piece appearing in the Washington Post, he lambasted the nation’s practice of currency manipulation:

“If I am fortunate enough to be elected president, I will work to fundamentally alter our economic relationship with China. As I describe in my economic plan, I will begin on Day One by designating China as the currency manipulator it is.”

In his 2010 book, Romney admits that trade hasn’t always been good for the American worker. On page 115 he writes:

“The case for trade makes good economic sense--trade improves the wages and standard of living for the average citizen. But trade can disrupt and devastate those individuals directly affected. Owners and shareholders may lose money, of course. But it is the employees and managers, from the shop floor to the drifting tables to delivery trucks, who take the brunt of the pain. Trade is good for the nation and for the average citizen, but it is decidedly not good for everybody.”

Nevertheless, his campaign promises include the creation of a “Reagan Economic Zone” to extend free trade policies worldwide, particularly in Asia. 

Earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, corporate-lobbyist turned politician Herman Cain refused to take a stance on NAFTA or CAFTA in an interview with blogger Jason Pye, but branded himself an advocate of fair trade policies:

“Uncle Sam has got to stop being Uncle Sucker. We don't need ‘free trade’ where other countries get   rich at our expense, but ‘fair trade’ where everyone plays by the same rules and everyone benefits.” (Full podcast here).

As chairman and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, however, Cain lobbied Washington on a variety of issues, including advocating against the increase of minimum wage and welfare reform, as well as policies of “free trade.”

According to Katrina Trinko of the National Review:

“[In 1994] he applauded the passage of the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT),   which lowered tariffs, and pushed for its ratification. ‘Free trade is not a zero-sum game. Everyone    can benefit,’ Cain said, according to Nation’s Restaurant News.”

His website doesn’t offer any suggestions or trade policy proposals, but Cain has brainstormed ways to improve our relations with China: he suggests that we simply “outgrow them.”

Former republican Representative from Georgia Newt Gingrich voted in favor of many expansive trade policies during his time in office, including three votes to expand Fast Track Authority, a vote to uphold the trade deals of the Uruguay round, and votes in favor of establishing trade deals with Israel in 1985 and Canada in 1988.

In a seemingly bizarre twist, Gingrich voted against the Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1998 which sought to expand Fast Track Authority. In the case of the Omnibus act, however, the Reagan administration urged Congress to vote against the bill as its labor and environmental standards were perceived as too progressive.

As Speaker of the House, Gingrich lobbied for NAFTA with the intensity of a “full court press,” working closely with then-President Clinton to ensure enough votes for passage. On a radio show earlier this year, Gingrich lauded the offshoring of jobs to Mexico, noting that he would rather have jobs “close to the United States” than elsewhere in the world.


On his website, former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-Utah) boasts his “proven record” of aggressive trade policies, and points to some notable examples from his “decades of experience” including helping to negotiate trade agreements in Asia and Africa, expanding the market for American exports in Singapore and China, and intensely pursuing trade to double Utah’s exports as Governor.

Huntsman served as Bush’s Deputy US Trade Representative from 2001 – 2004. In his election speech he urged lawmakers to establish more “free trade” agreements and launch a new round of the World Trade Organization. As governor, Huntsman signed a letter binding the state of Utah to government procurement rules in the trade deals with Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

In his jobs plan Huntsman promises to make “free trade” a priority as president and to “immediately pursue new trade opportunities with other nations, including Japan, India and Taiwan.” His campaign platform also includes initiative to finish the WTO’s Doha round and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).


Former Governor Gary Johnson (R-N.M.)  has distinguished himself from other republican candidates through progressive stances on same-sex marriage, abortion rights, drug policy and immigration, but has yet to declare a firm position on trade.

In an interview with Reality Report TV, Johnson is vaguely critical of NAFTA, stating that he “cannot speak specifically to the advantages or detriment” of the trade deal, but believes that the criticism of NAFTA should be “rooted in the fact that big business became even bigger business.” He goes on to say that he would “like to think” that he would veto that kind of legislation was he president.

And although he has appealed to libertarian voters, he has not been an outspoken critic of trade deals like his counterpart Rep. Ron Paul.


Former Rep. Buddy Roemer (R-La.) supported expansive “free” trade policies during his time in office, voting in favor of a trade deal with Israel in 1985, as well as the expansion of Fast Track Authority in 1988.

Now, vying for the Republican presidential nomination, Roemer has taken a remarkably different stance on trade. In an interview with Ian Fletcher at the Huffington Post, Roemer describes the Colombia, Panama and Korea free trade deals as “terrible.” He supports this statement with coherent arguments about Panama’s offshore banking problem, safety and human rights concerns in Korea, and political violence in Colombia. He also attacks the WTO with similarly well-versed critiques of sovereignty.

Appearing on the Thom Hartman Show in July, Roemer promises to take on corporate interests in the name of fair trade policies: “nobody has the guts to insist on fair trade, nobody has the guts to challenge China using child labor, using prison labor, using unfair standards. Nobody has the guts to challenge them. I will.”


While in office, former Rep. and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) voted in favor of  a slew of damaging trade policies, including expanding fast track twice, implementing Uruguay round trade agreements, and approving deals with Chile, Singapore, Australia, Oman and CAFTA.  Conversely, Santorum voted against NAFTA in 1993. In an interview with Fox News earlier this year, Santorum simultaneously defended his position and insulted Mexico:  

“I was not someone who supported NAFTA, as an example, because I thought that Mexico was, frankly, not going to be a particularly trustworthy trading partner at the time, and I think that proved out to be the case. NAFTA has been, at best, in my opinion, a wash.”

Santorum seems to miss the connection between corporate-backed trade deals and the race to the bottom.  In the same interview Santorum claims that “free” trade did not contribute to economic instability, but rather other country’s policies of cutting regulation and paying lower working wages has caused many of today’s financial problems.


As a Senator, President Barack Obama’s voting record is mixed. He voted against CAFTA, in favor of the trade deal with Oman, and did not vote either way on the trade deal with Peru [which he was reportedly in favor of]. During his presidential campaign, Obama took a decidedly stronger stance, and won many key swing states by pledging to create a “trade agreement for the 21st century,” which was to include strong environmental and labor standards. In 2008 he told voters “I voted against CAFTA, never supported NAFTA, and will not support NAFTA-style trade agreements in the future.”

Instead of fulfilling his campaign promises, President Obama pushed three Bush-negotiated trade deals through Congress, despite record numbers of opposition from his own political party. This included deals with Korea and Colombia that are projected to cost over 200,000 jobs at a time of substantial unemployment.

Now the Obama administration is working behind closed doors to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), another corporate-backed trade deal.

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Don Juan of Austria

What a joke.

During the 2008 Democratic primary, both major candidates had to promise to repeal NAFTA to win the nomination.

Instead, we got NAFTA with Korea and Mexican trucking... and continuing work on this Bush Administration NAFTA with Vietnam (the TPP).

And now there are no candidates from either party on the ballot in 2012 who will use higher tariffs and quotas to protect American workers and our future.

Steven Capozzola

While Ron Paul has voted against free trade deals due to concerns about sovereignty issues, he also voted against last year's China currency bill. We can presume his opposition to the bill to be based on libertarian philosophy. It's unfortunate that he voted against the bill, though, because the overarching issue is that China has been acting in an extremely protectionist manner, and should be held accountable, for the sake of the free market.

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