- By Jessica HolzerJessica Holzer is an editor at Foreign Policy. She previously covered financial regulation for The Wall Street Journal.
President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. trade representative has drawn sharp opposition from his own party, highlighting the Republican schism over free trade that erupted during the election.
Trump’s nominee, Robert Lighthizer, argues that modern free trade orthodoxy doesn’t have deep roots in the conservative movement, and faults so-called free traders within his party for being too dogmatic.
Those views may endear him with Rust Belt voters who sent Trump to the White House, but they are coming back to haunt him as he awaits confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska announced Wednesday they will not vote for Lighthizer — who is a veteran trade lawyer and Reagan-era deputy trade representative — in a rare break in party unity over a cabinet nominee.
So far, no other Republicans have said they will oppose Lighthizer, who passed the Senate Finance Committee last month on a unanimous vote. And he is still expected to win confirmation by the full Senate as soon as Thursday — in part because many Democrats applaud his support of heavy industry and get-tough approach on China.
Still, the mini-mutiny over his confirmation underscores the split between the Republican establishment and its voters over an issue that was until recently considered party doctrine. And it may be a harbinger of broader revolt among congressional Republicans over Trump’s protectionist shift. Trump is going to need congressional approval for any new or renegotiated trade deals — unless he just pulls out altogether — and farm state Republicans won’t support shifts that hurt agricultural exports.
During the campaign, Republican voters’ support for free trade plummeted as Trump bashed the North American Free Trade Agreement and painted the United States as being outplayed by China and other trade partners.
Last October, just 29 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said free trade agreements have been good for the United States, down from 56 percent a year and a half earlier, according to polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Support has rebounded somewhat since the election, with 36 percent of Republicans viewing trade agreements positively in April, according to Pew.
But Democrats view trade agreements more favorably, with 67 percent of Democrats and voters leaning Democratic saying free trade agreements have been good for the United States, up from 59 percent in October.
Regardless of the grassroots abdication of longtime party principles, McCain and Sasse are sticking to their guns. In pushing back against his confirmation, they cited Lighthizer’s “vocal advocacy” for protectionist policies and what they termed his failure to reassure lawmakers that he understood the economic benefits of NAFTA.
“We fear that you do not have an appreciation for the millions of jobs created by this free trade deal, and that you would not champion agriculture,” the senators wrote in a letter to Lighthizer that they released Wednesday.
They raised concerns about the administration’s “ongoing, incoherent, and inconsistent trade message” and said it would be irresponsible to confirm Lighthizer under these circumstances. With its trade negotiator installed, the administration would have legal authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress must consider under accelerated procedures, they said.
There’s also the fact that Lighthizer singled out McCain, who had just won his party’s nomination in the presidential race, in a 2008 op-ed published by the New York Times.
McCain, Lighthizer charged, was one of the Republican free traders who “rely too often on the notion that we should change the country to suit their trade policy — an approach that is not in the best traditions of American conservatism.”
That also likely didn’t sit well with McCain.
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