In responding to President Clinton's auto trade agreement with Japan, GOP presidential hopefuls have unveiled a nasty little secret: The Republicans are as split over trade as the Democrats. The gap is at its widest between Patrick Buchanan, a flaming economic nationalist, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an instinctive free trader.
Mr. Buchanan, a vociferous opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the reforms that brought the World Trade Organization into being, was quick to jump on the auto deal with Japan, describing it as "pathetic." "Even Neville Chamberlain got a piece of paper to wave around when he got home. . . We didn't even get that."
Contrast that to Mr. Gingrich's complaint that it was "insane" for the administration to get into a "public fight" with the Tokyo government. "It is sending a signal to every other country on the planet that the largest exporter in the world, the United States, is legitimizing unilateral attacks."
The House speaker supported NAFTA and world trade reforms, both being initiatives that came out of the Reagan-Bush era. Indeed, without Republican support, President Clinton could never have prevailed on NAFTA, a proposal bitterly opposed not only by big labor but by the House Democratic leadership.
These Democratic differences were again on display after the most recent Japanese trade accord. House Minority leader Richard Gephardt said "we can and should go even further to press for real trade fairness with Japan." Minority whip David Bonior dismissed the pact as "hardly a dramatic step forward."
Actually, Mr. Clinton's confrontational stance toward Japan could boost his re-election prospects. He is doing his political utmost to make amends to organized labor and thousands of blue-collar workers, especially in Michigan and Illinois, who will play a critical role in next year's elections.
As for Senate majority leader Robert Dole and his rival for the GOP nomination, Sen. Phil Gramm, their reactions to the auto trade accord rang strictly phony. At least Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Gingrich believe strongly in their opposing views on trade. But Mr. Dole and Mr. Gramm, both pro-NAFTA free trade supporters, felt a need to follow the Buchanan line. Mr. Dole called the pact "vague, unenforceable, non-binding -- in short, it is virtually empty." Mr. Gramm said "it turned out that the president was only shooting blanks."
With Mr. Clinton typically playing both sides of the trade issue -- getting tough with Japan but eschewing a showdown that could wreck the World Trade Organization -- it is up to his opponents to clarify this vital question. Don't count on it.