Daniel W. Drezner

You campaign in mercantilism. You govern as a free trader.

You campaign in mercantilism.  You govern as a free trader.

For the past few days I’ve been getting emails asking whether I’m gonna comment on one of the most offensive and brutally effective campaign ads I have ever seen: 


It’s brutal because… well, let’s face it, that Romney tic was always the most cringe-worthy aspect of the campaign.  Anything negative that Romney did, contrasted with that song, would be powerful. 

It’s ridiculously offensive, however, because it baldly asserts that doing business with Mexico, China or Switzerland is un-American.  Other idiocies like the Olympic-uniform controversy feed into the public perception that having the other countries make stuff is an abomination of the first degree. 

So, does it matter for policy?  Well…. no.

Mario Cuomo once said "You campaign in poetry.  You govern in prose."  Now, Mario Cuomo was clearly the world’s worst poetry connoisseur.  Still, to update his observation for our current needs, we can say, "You campaign as a mercantilist; you govern as a free-trader."  The reason that Romney has seemed so discombobulated by the Bain attacks is that he’s been China-bashing since Day One ofhis campaign, so it’s tough to then flip-flop pivot to a free trade stance.  As for Obama, Matthew Yglesias noted the following last week:

[A]ll indications are that Barack Obama also doesn’t think Bain was doing anything wrong. As president he’s made no moves to make it illegal for companies to shift production work abroad and has publicly associated himself with a wide range of American firms—from GE to Apple and beyond—who’ve done just that to varying extents. And we all remember what happened to Obama’s promise to renegotiate NAFTA after taking office, right?

Or, David Brooks today:

Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides.

But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked. 

Brooks’ colleague Nate Silver might quibble a bit with the "politically working" point, but that’s a small quibble.  Americans loooooooove mercantilism, so this kind of rhetoric makes tactical sense during a campaign. As stomach-churning as I find this kind of ad, I must reluctantly agree with Yglesias and Brooks that it doesn’t matter all that much for governing.  Even this Washington Post story that talks about Obama’s "rethinking" of free trade doesn’t really deliver the goods on significant policy shifts.  And it appears that even the Chinese government recognize campaign bluster for what it is. 

So — to repeat a theme — I don’t think the mercantilist campaign rhetoric will amount to much. 

Still, as someone who thinks offshore outsourcing is an unobjectionable practice, this is going to be a nauseating campaign.