Wow. I didn't expect to see Republicans and Democrats vying to see which party can appear to be the most protectionist (wink, wink). This essay argues that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who oppose free trade and that protectionist policies put into place by conservative administrations have made us stronger. The author is "a trade lawyer, was a deputy trade representative in the Reagan administration and the treasurer of Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign":
Grand Old Protectionists, by Robert E. Lighthizer, Commentary, NY Times: Now that John McCain is ... the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party, he can ...start worrying about winning over conservatives. ...
To prove his bona fides as a conservative, Mr. McCain and his defenders often cite his support for free trade. ... Mr. McCain may be a conservative. But his unbridled free-trade policies don’t help make that case.
Free trade has long been popular with liberals, and it remains so with liberal elites today. ... Ted Kennedy supported the advance of free trade. President Bill Clinton fought hard to win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement. ...Barack Obama is careful to express qualified support for free trade, even when stumping in the industrial Midwest.
Moreover, many American conservatives have opposed free trade. Jesse Helms, the most outspoken conservative in the Senate for three decades, was no free trader. Neither was Alexander Hamilton, who could be considered the founder of American conservatism.
For almost 100 years after the Civil War, the Republican Party (led by men like Lincoln and McKinley) was overtly protectionist. Theodore Roosevelt, a hero of John McCain’s, wrote that “pernicious indulgence in the doctrine of free trade seems inevitably to produce fatty degeneration of the moral fiber.” ...
If you watched the Republican presidential debates ... you might believe that Ronald Reagan ... was a pure free trader. During a debate in Michigan, for example, Mr. McCain said that President Reagan “must be spinning in his grave” to hear Republicans expressing concerns about free trade. But ... President Reagan often broke with free-trade dogma. He arranged for voluntary restraint agreements to limit imports of automobiles and steel... He provided temporary import relief for Harley-Davidson. He limited imports of sugar and textiles. His administration pushed for the “Plaza accord” of 1985 ... that made Japanese imports more expensive by raising the value of the yen.
Each of these measures prompted vociferous criticism from free traders. But they worked. By the early 1990s, doubts about Americans’ ability to compete had been impressively reduced.
President Reagan’s pragmatism contrasted strongly with the utopian dreams of free traders. ... Anglo-American conservatism has rejected ivory-tower theories that disregard the realities of everyday life.
Modern free traders, on the other hand, embrace their ideal with a passion... They allow no room for practicality, nuance or flexibility. ... They oppose any trade limitations, even if we must depend on foreign countries to feed ourselves or equip our military. They see nothing but dogma — no matter how many jobs are lost, how high the trade deficit rises or how low the dollar falls.
Conservative statesmen from Alexander Hamilton to Ronald Reagan sometimes supported protectionism and at other times they leaned toward lowering barriers. But they always understood that trade policy was merely a tool for building a strong and independent country with a prosperous middle class.
Free traders like Mr. McCain instead rely too often on the notion that we should change the country to suit their trade policy — an approach that is not in the best traditions of American conservatism.
If Republicans want to label themselves as the party of protectionists (more walls!), that's fine with me. But attributing the strength of the US economy in the 1990s to the protectionist policies of the Reagan administration is more than a bit of a stretch. We're not sure why the economy took off in the 1990s, but it wasn't from protectionist policies for Harleys and sugar, or anything else.