By John Reifsteck: Champaign, Illinois
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum won the Louisiana primary on Saturday, pumping new life into his campaign following last week’s big win by Mitt Romney in Illinois, where I live. The battle for the GOP nomination probably will stretch into summer. "The race is long and far from over," said Santorum.
That means the former senator from Pennsylvania will keep on talking about how to create jobs in an economy with an unemployment rate that floats above 8 percent.
One of the best ways is with exports--and Santorum should tell a positive story about how his own view on free trade has evolved from occasional skepticism to a full embrace of how much our economy benefits when goods and services flow across borders.
Santorum can start with what he’s proposing right now. On his 32-point economic plan, boosting exports is item no. 19: "Negotiate 5 Free Trade Agreements and submit to Congress in first year of Presidency."
That’s an ambitious agenda. President Obama has been in office for more than three years but he has managed only three deals. He deserves enormous credit for completing the pacts with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea--each one will help our economy.
So five free-trade agreements in 12 months is a tall order. Yet it’s also a worthy goal. He is looking in the right direction.
Santorum does have some experience with helping trade agreements move through Congress. As a senator, he voted to approve deals with Australia, Chile, Morocco, Oman, and Singapore, plus the Central American Free Trade Agreement. He also favored Trade Promotion Authority, which presidents must have to engage in serious trade talks with other countries.
Yet Santorum was no free-trade purist. In fact, there’s a big blemish on his voting record. Almost 20 years ago, he had a chance to join a bipartisan majority and deliver a job-creating jolt to the U.S. economy--but he turned it down.
In 1993, Santorum came out against the North American Free Trade Agreement, in what the Club for Growth has described as "perhaps the most important free trade vote of the last generation."
Santorum, who hails from the Pittsburg area, said he was worried about the fate of the steel industry. "NAFTA will produce pockets of winners and losers across the country," he said. "Our area is unfortunately one of the losers."
It wasn’t that simple--certainly not for Pennsylvania. The Keystone State currently exports more than $2 billion per year to Mexico, according to Christopher Wilson in "Working Together," a report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Almost a quarter of a million Pennsylvanians owe their jobs to the Mexican market. Metal manufacturing alone accounted for $467 million of Pennsylvania’s exports to Mexico last year.
When Santorum voted against NAFTA, he explained his opposition this way: "You have to stare in the face of the folks you represent." He went on to support steel tariffs, again because he thought his constituents needed the government to shield them from international competition.
The President of the United States must represent the whole of the United States, not just one part of it--and NAFTA has benefited everyone. Today, Mexico is the second-largest destination for U.S. exports. About one in 24 American workers receives a steady paycheck because of the goods and services that flow to Mexico. Trade with Canada, our other NAFTA partner, also creates millions of jobs in the United States.
Santorum should acknowledge that he has learned from his mistake. The Pennsylvania primary is on April 24--that would provide an excellent opportunity for Santorum to say that as president, he will set aside the parochialism of his past and support trade policies that will help Americans everywhere. Saying so in front of his old constituents would signal to the rest of the country that he’s serious about creating jobs through trade.
Exports generate jobs--and one of the most important jobs of the president is to generate exports.
John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in western Champaign County Illinois. He serves as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org