Time to Put Trade Above Politics

Washington needs to realize that a free-trade agreement with Asia is good for us all

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Still, the democratic party's retreat on free trade over the past two decades has been utterly dispiriting and totally at odds with its claim to be modern, future-oriented and open. It's also at odds with the party's history. There is FDR nostalgia among Democrats these days as they consider how he battled a depression, created the social safety net and made assertive government admirable. But Democrats forget another crucial element of his legacy: free trade. In a smart essay for the Council on Foreign Relations, Douglas A. Irwin points out that the "fast track" authority--empowering the President to negotiate trade deals--that Reid and Nancy Pelosi oppose was created by the Roosevelt Administration in 1934. FDR and Secretary of State Cordell Hull knew that free trade helps produce not just prosperity but also peace. In fact, free trade was one of Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points to remedy the mistakes that led to World War I.

Free trade has always required an assertion of the national interest over special interests. Harry Truman vetoed a bill that tried to kill the nascent world trading system. John Kennedy took on domestic producers who feared foreign competition as he expanded that system substantially. And Bill Clinton heroically took on his party's opposition to NAFTA and turned much of it around.

President Obama will have to spend real political capital, take his case to the country, push his party and work with Republicans. But if he does, history tells us that he--and the U.S. and the world--will win.

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