by Nina Easton
December 13 2007: 11:21 AM EST
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Republicans like protectionism, too

With the Iowa caucuses nearing, some GOP presidential candidates are reviving the party's historic isolationist wing - and trade is their target.

By Nina Easton, Washington bureau chief

(Fortune) -- You don't have to travel to the Democratic side of the presidential race and to hear the chords of protectionism. That was evident at yesterday's Republican presidential debate in Johnston, Iowa - the last formal verbal joust before that state's voters kick off the official race by voting in caucuses on January 3.

Mostly, the debate was a snoozer-with Des Moines Register editor Carolyn Washburn (inexplicably the sole questioner) doing her schoolmarm best to quash any serious sparring between the candidates just 22 days before the Iowa caucuses. But there was one telling line of questioning, and it revealed the strong isolationist sentiment on the GOP's right.

While confined mostly to second-tier candidates, these vocal fears over globalization - combined with attacks on free trade agreements by the leading Democratic presidential candidates - once again highlights a troubling trend: A large segment of the American public is wary of open economic borders.

As moderator, Washburn dictated that the terms of a debate that would exclude discussion of Iraq or illegal immigration (she insisted Iowa voters know enough about the candidate stands on these issues). So Colorado Congressman's Tom Tancredo's usual tirades against immigration - legal and illegal - were limited. But he was offered another route to present his vision of a closed America when Washburn asked the candidates what changes they would make to the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic President.

NAFTA, said Tancredo, has "been a disaster for a lot of places and especially Mexico...Guess what happened? They all came north," Tancredo said of Mexican immigrants. California Congressman Duncan Hunter seconded that view: "We've made bad business deals between nations, and NAFTA's a bad business deal." Asked about American economic problems that might also pose a security threat, Hunter didn't hesitate. "The real threat that we have right now that is a threat to national security is a trade loss," he said. "The trade loss this year is going to be $800 billion."

The main culprit? "Communist China is rapidly becoming our banker, and there's an old saying you don't want to have a banker that doesn't have your best interests at heart," he said.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee - who tops the polls in Iowa and threatens Rudy Giuliani's lead nationally - has said he believes in "free trade but it has to be fair trade." In yesterday's debate, the Baptist preacher focused on his support for cutting red tape and taxes to keep more American companies inside U.S. borders.

By contrast, the other leading candidates offered a future vision of robust American competition in the global marketplace. Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson called "free trade and fair trade the backbone of our economy." Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said investments in education and technology would help the U.S. compete. He said he would renegotiate deals, especially with China, that hurt U.S. interests, but added: "Don't put up barriers that keep us from being able to trade. America can compete anywhere in the world, and to remain a superpower, we must compete around the world. "

Arizona Senator John McCain said he planned to "open every market in the world to Iowa's agricultural products," a comment that sounded like pandering to that state's audience until he courageously added that he also supports eliminating farm subsidies.

But my favorite line of argument was Giuliani's. It's one that he has used before, but worth hearing again. "America," said the former New York mayor, "is a country of entrepreneurs and dreamers and creators, and what we should be thinking about is how much we can sell to these people as they're coming out of poverty. Twenty million, 30 million people in India, China - these are new customers." And then he added: "We're big dreamers here in this country. We've got plenty we can sell all over the world that'll make up for what we're buying."

Giuliani's words reflected a confident embrace of an internationalist America - one starkly at odds with Duncan Hunter's call for U.S. citizens to "buy American goods" this holiday season.

[Full disclosure: Nina Easton's husband is a Romney adviser.] To top of page

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