AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka just laid out the case against Bush’s “suicidal” trade policy and argued effectively (if uncreatively) that “American workers deserve better, you deserve better, and America deserves better.” Trade policy – given the contrasts and contradictions between his record, his rhetoric, his advisors’ rhetoric and records, public opinion, elite opinion, and such – may be the biggest question mark hanging over a Kerry administration; as Ramesh Ponnuru (just flip the words “optimistic” and “pessimistic”) observes:

We keep getting mixed signals about how seriously to take the Democrats’ protectionist rhetoric. The most optimistic spin is that the corporate-tax plan, whether or not it’s a good idea, is a fairly modest way to pander to protectionist sentiment. I doubt Kerry is really going to do much with that promised review of existing trade agreements. On the pessimistic side: Even Bill Clinton plumped for more trade “enforcement actions” on Monday night (as Kerry also has); the Democrats want no new trade agreements without conditions that make it very hard to envision the agreements being reached; and Kerry’s objection to Bush’s steel tariffs is not that he imposed them but that he later rescinded them.

Matthew Yglesias shares one of many anecdotes which should make Ponnuru (and Yglesias, for that matter) optimistic and the rest of us more pessimistic:

On hand was Rand Beers, Kerry’s top national security adviser (and his likely National Security Adviser), Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (Kerry’s likely Secretary of State), former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Senator Gary Hart, and — most interestingly — Laura Tyson, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors and currently one of three economists “consulted on nearly every [economic] policy decision” the Kerry campaign makes…Tyson acknowledged that her remarks were somewhat at odds with much of what Kerry’s said on the campaign trail. “When people say, ‘well, listen to what the Kerry campaign has said about trade in some of the primaries, we are concerned that Senator Kerry will move the US away from trade integration,'” she said, she tells them to “think about the issue of national campaigns in the US” and to “recognize that what might be said in one primary … is not an indicator of the future.”

Tyson further argued that Kerry would be able to liberalize trade more than Bush has, because Kerry would support policies that help compensate the inevitable losers in globalization — a step that will allegedly drain the swamp of anti-trade sentiment. Lest it be thought that Tyson’s commitment to the multilateral process and to continued trade integration leaves plenty of wriggle room to keep the process but add, say, environmental standards into the mix, she explicitly disavowed this option during a later exchange. Adding environmental issues to the WTO’s brief might bog it down and impede progress on further integration. “I want to assure you that a Kerry-Edwards administration will continue in the great American tradition of leading the way on global economic integration,” she concluded.

A rightward tack during the general election following on the heels of a shift to the left during the primaries isn’t necessarily anything to write home about — that’s how all Democratic presidential campaigns work. The dynamics of the trade issue, however, are somewhat different, because the left view on trade is actually more popular than the centrist alternative in many of this year’s key swing states. Accordingly, the higher-profile public speeches in the Fleet Center have continued to sound skeptical themes, while the free-trade message has been delivered to elite audiences at low-profile events. There are no sure things in politics, and Kerry might change course yet again while in office; as a senator, though, he was (as John Edward tried to point out against him during the primary campaign) a consistent supporter of new trade agreements, so there’s every reason to believe that the Democrats’ centrist wing has already won the first major policy fight of the Kerry era.

Another area where labor had better be prepared to play hardball with the Democrats.

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