Barack Obama lost the Democratic primary in Ohio, but there was another casualty during that campaign as well: the truth about trade.
Both Obama and Hillary Clinton blamed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for the loss of more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs over the past 14 years. They even suggested scrapping the pact if Canada and Mexico don't agree to major revisions.
This might be good politics, but it's terrible policy. International commerce is a huge benefit to America, the world's largest exporting nation. Both Democrats know that, but they caved in to the close-minded, backward-looking voices in the labor movement who have turned trade into a five-letter curse word.
Contrast their pandering to the candor of John McCain, who repeated in Ohio the same message he used in Michigan: "Some of those manufacturing jobs are not coming back, and you know it and I know it."
Even though eight of 10 Ohio voters said NAFTA cost the state jobs, McCain was courageous enough to tell a town-hall meeting in Rocky River: "The economists that I know and trust and the history that I study … says that free trade is the best thing that can happen to our nation. When we have practiced protectionism, it has had devastating consequences."
He's absolutely right. And interestingly, one of Obama's top economic advisers recently told two Canadian diplomats not to take his candidate's anti-trade fulminations too seriously. According to a memo written by the diplomats, the economist, Austan Goolsbee, indicated "that much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy."
Obama's received a lot of heat on that one as a deceitful hypocrite, but actually, we hope the memo does reflect his real feelings. Whoever carries the Democratic banner against McCain this fall would be much better off telling voters the truth about trade rather than distorting the facts to please their union supporters.
And here are the facts, as stated by Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, at Duke University several years ago: "Economists are often accused of not being able to agree on anything. Although we are indeed a contentious bunch, one proposition commands almost unanimous assent within the economics community. That proposition is that free trade among nations promotes economic prosperity."
The reasons, he added, are "disarmingly simple." Trade encourages each individual, and each nation, to produce the goods they make most efficiently. An example offered two centuries ago still holds: England produces cloth, Portugal wine, and trade "allows both countries to enjoy more of both goods." At lower prices, too.
We've never forgotten an incident that occurred during the 1980 campaign.
Then, as now, Democrats were railing about the negative impact of foreign competition, and Steve flew to Anderson, Ind., to interview auto workers idled by a rise in Japanese imports. Privately, two workers pulled him aside and admitted they were buying Hondas with their unemployment checks.
But what of those 200,000 jobs lost in Ohio? Mexicans didn't replace those workers, machines did. As Professor Edward Hill of Cleveland State told the Toledo Blade: "The reason … we lost jobs was not from trade. It was growth in productivity."
In fact, manufacturing in Ohio is booming. The state exported $42 billion worth of goods last year, a 12 percent increase in 12 months. Yes, jobs are declining in traditional industries like steel and autos, but they are growing in other sectors. According to Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, 80 Ohio companies are making products for the wind-power and solar-panel industries.
"Once we get through the current economic storm we're in," he told the Blade, "we're going to see an upturn in manufacturing in job growth and job creation."
The victims of that storm deserve help: better jobless benefits, broader health insurance, the training they need to take the jobs created by that "upturn."
But it's time for the demagoguery to end. Democratic politicians, and the news media, should get this story right. It's always easy to take a picture of a shuttered plant gate and interview a frustrated 55-year-old who worked there all his life. It's harder to find the 25-year-old who has a job making — and exporting — solar panels; or the parents who can afford a cheaper bike or sweater for their children because those items were made in China.
So far, on the trade issue, McCain is living up to his "straight talk" reputation, while the Democrats are twisting the truth.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.