The choice, says TIME senior economics reporter Bernard Baumohl, has likely already been made -- and it's not going to please the free-trade types. "Many economists would say, ‘Let ’em sell here,’" he says. "It’s the law of comparative advantage; if the Japanese can make it cheaper, then that’s good for U.S. manufacturers and, ultimately, U.S. consumers. In this economy, the steel jobs will land elsewhere." The other side of the argument? The Japanese are dumping illegally –- or at least the Commerce Department thinks so –- possibly in an attempt to monopolize the industry so they can raise prices later. That moral argument will be enough to sway Clinton in the traditionally Democratic direction: leftward, toward the unions. "If he wants Al Gore to be president, or Hillary to be a senator," says Baumohl, "Clinton has to make nice with the unions."
Now it comes time for the free-trade President to put his policy where his mouth is. The U.S. International Trade Commission has approved punitive tariffs to keep low-priced Japanese steel from further harming the U.S. steel industry. Now it’s up to Clinton whether he approves the tariffs –- which could run as high as 67 percent to allow U.S. steelmakers to compete –- or sticks to his free-trade guns and resists the steelworkers unions’ throaty call for protectionism.