Troubling retreat on free trade

Supporter for former Democratic Presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., John Stanley from DeForest Wis., yells as he and other Sanders supporters react during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher)

To shouts of “four more years” President Barack Obama told the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night that he is ready to “pass the baton” to Hillary Rodham Clinton, suggesting that she will carry on the policies he has pursued.

But there is one glaring area where Mrs. Clinton has parted company with the president: the importance of removing trade barriers. Since Donald Trump has also taken a stance against trade expansion, both major party candidates appear ready to abandon a policy that has been an underlying strength of the national economy since the end of World War II.

Some critics are calling it the end of America’s global leadership. At the very least, it yields the floor to other aggressive trading countries, like China, giving them a chance to rewrite the rules of international trade, likely to our disadvantage. Once yielded, leadership in open trade policy will be difficult to regain.

Specifically, Mrs. Clinton, like Mr. Trump, has come out against the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Mr. Obama’s massive trade agreement with 12 Asian nations other than China, and the most ambitious American trade expansion effort in a decade. When Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton called it the “gold standard” of trade agreements. But that was then.

When Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe hinted that Mrs. Clinton would favor the trade agreement once elected, the Democratic nominee’s campaign chair, John Podesta, responded that Mrs. Clinton will be opposed to TPP after the election: “Period. Full Stop.”

That will prove to be a hard position to wriggle out of.

The abandonment of TPP also foretells the death knell of Mr. Obama’s other ambitious trade initiative designed to improve trade with Europe, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The timing of this pullback from foreign trade couldn’t be worse. Over the next four years and more, Britain will be seeking new trade pacts with Europe and Asia as a consequence of its withdrawal from the European Union. But “Brexit” is about resistance to a wide range of intrusive European rules that have nothing to do with trade. It is not a rebellion against foreign trade. And Britain’s demands for more open markets are likely to fill up the international trade agenda for the entire term of our next president, leaving scant room for addressing our own national trade interests.

The sad irony of this situation is that Mr. Obama might well have obtained congressional approval for TPP, and brought TTIP to fruition as well, if he had been willing to work cooperatively with the Republican leadership in Congress and with those Democrats not wholly beholden to organized labor. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been a strong supporter. As Mr. Ryan has noted, 96 percent of the world’s customers live outside the United States.

A wise policy would have been to couple the trade agreements with legislation to help displaced workers as well as communities devastated by plant closings. Such a program could have helped in the same way that the economic impact of closing military bases was handled.

But trade policy that bolsters America’s influence across the world, and promotes global prosperity and diminishes discord, will have to wait for leaders with more optimism about the strength of the nation than Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump. From all appearances, free trade won’t have a friend in the White House next year.