Bush and free trade

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Alabama residents gave President Bush a strong election endorsement and he remains a popular figure in the state. But there is at least one issue on which state residents and the president part company: free trade.

Mistrust of international accords is an old refrain in Alabama, but a new poll shows the depth of resentment. Of the 419 Alabama residents polled by the Mobile Register and University of South Alabama survey, one in 10 thought the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was good for Alabama.

Most people said they were willing to pay more for cars, clothing and other consumer goods in order to protect American jobs.

Those sentiments are understandable, particularly in the eastern part of the state, which ahs seen the textile industry pack up and leave for foreign shores.

Yet in truth, those jobs were leaving the state before NAFTA, which dropped trade barriers on goods from Mexico and Canada, took effect. If there was no such agreement, they would have simply gone to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala or Honduras, where labor is cheap and overhead is low, the president of a Mobile-based shipping firm observed.

That doesn't make NAFTA any more palatable to Alabamians, especially in these tough economic times.

It's a tricky issue for politicians, for it can cut both ways. What makes sense to wealthy manufacturers does not necessarily equate to support at the grass roots.

It hasn't hurt Bush so far in Alabama but if hard times continue his push for preferential trade accords and expanded deal-making authority could be a growing problem in areas like Alabama where he now enjoys solid support.

The Tuscaloosa News

August 20, 2002