The Candidates on Trade

King Banian runs the numbers and finds that, despite their rhetorical differences on the stump, all three major presidential candidates are essentially free traders:

  • Clinton — very much the interventionist. She only opposed nine of 29 trade barriers in her Senate career, and only one of seven trade subsidy bills.
  • McCain is more the free trader. He opposed trade barriers 35 times out of 40 votes on such issues, and eight out of ten votes were against trade subsidies. The latter fits his profile as a crusader against government waste, as most trade subsidy programs are corporate pork.
  • Obama, 36% of votes opposed trade barriers (4 of 11). He only voted twice on trade subsidies and supported them both times. An interventionist, though there’s not as much of a record here as you might like to make that call.

The Obama sample is rather small and we can’t see at a glance which votes they went the other way on. Still, this confirms would seem to totally contradict what I’ve long suspected: The protectionist claptrap that Obama, and increasingly Clinton, spout on the campaign trail is just talk.

King will be joining the gang tonight on OTB Radio to discuss this more fully.

UPDATE: As yetanotherjohn points out in the comments, I initially misinterpreted the data because I presumed they were presented in parallel form. Instead, Clinton’s and Obama’s votes are for barriers whereas McCain’s are against them. My apologies for the carelessness.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. David says:

    He’ll be joining the gang tonight on OTB Radio to discuss this more fully.

    Who’s “he”? Obama? McCain? Don’t say King Banian…

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    You have an interesting view of statistics.

    despite their rhetorical differences on the stump, all three major presidential candidates are essentially free traders

    According to the numbers you cite in opposition to free trade barriers, Clinton was 31% of the time, Obama 39% and McCain 88%. In supporting trade subsidies, Clinton was 86% of the time, Obama 100% and McCain 20%.

    Can you please explain how you consider these to be essentially the same? McCain is from more than twice to almost three times more likely to oppose trade barriers and the trade subsidies difference is even more dramatic.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    So given the tough economic times that Mr. and Mrs. Obama have faced trying to raise a couple kids on just two or three hundred thousand a year, do these votes indicate that in addition to a 20 year clinging to religion in the form of Wright’s church that Obama is also clinging to anti-trade sentiment to explain their frustrations?

  4. John Prince says:

    Mary Matalin, McCain, and other politicians may love free trade only because it has the word “free” in the title. NAFTA, GAFTA, or other “free trade” formulas are a system that allows US companies to import their products made overseas back to US markets without having tariffs imposed. The so-called ‘free trade has kept wages down in foreign labor markets while dragging American wages along with them. The exact opposite of the reason why free trade was sold to the world is happening. Wages are not rising above that of paid slavery in the countries that were to benefit from “free trade,” and the increase to US markets has not happened either. The lack of increase for foreign goods has only increased for large multinational entities without borders or allegiances to any one nation. The US businesses that have reaped benefit are not the small local businesses; rather it is limited to large conglomerates and corporations. These “free trade” agreements have stifled competition for small independent business, while allowing the big fish to shop for the cheapest labor pool possible. Why send the production lines over to China if you cannot save on the overhead of labor? Tariffs were the protection of the US industrial, employment opportunities and the assurance that business would remain based within the US. The same should be true for other nations as well. When people say, “we have to learn to compete in a global market,” they really mean competition with slave labor wages. We had respected, high quality, sought after products that were very competitive on the world stage before we threw away the tariff system. With the import tariff system a US company might spend 7 dollars per hr. in the US for labor, it would cost the same 7 dollars per hr. if you had the same product made in China. Without tariffs to stimulate the supply and demand for US based labor, companies, and products it is now possible for a US company to pay 1 dollar per hr. for foreign labor tariff free. Yes, foreign companies may export to the US tariff free under free trade, but why would they bring any labor market to the US when they can base their production line in Mexico and bypass us labor? It is not cost efficient to pay US workers anything more than the foreign companies can find in Mexico, China, or India. Free trade is not free. It is a feeding ground for those with massive capitol and need for large labor pools while evading regulation, quality standards, pensions, or health care overhead costs of employees.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    John Prince,

    The ideas you profess were discredited as we came out of the dark ages. Free trade increases economic prosperity. Inefficient companies can get hurt, but the efficient ones prosper.

    Take the Columbian free trade agreement. The only substantive change would be the US companies could sell into Columbia without paying import tariffs. Columbia would not have any greater access into the US than they have now. Why would this be a good deal for them? Because the security of having their current trade access guaranteed by treaty (as opposed to requiring renewal periodically by a fickle president/congress) would provide stability to their economy that would in turn increase their economic production. And of course for us it provides new markets to sell our goods into.

    But of course the democrats are so beholden to the dying dinosaur that is unions that they would rather hurt the US economy than even allow a vote on the treaty.