CHICAGO — CHICAGO - Rep. Richard A. Gephardt has a theory of how to become president.
It starts with being the most protectionist candidate in the Democratic field, which he hopes will lead to his endorsement by the AFL-CIO, lifting him to victory in the primaries and the general election.
But if it were such a great plan, the Missouri congressman wouldn't be running. He'd be writing his presidential memoirs.
He tried this approach in 1988, campaigning on a bill to punish countries that ran trade surpluses with the United States. But after winning in Iowa, he soon fell out of contention. The guy who beat him in the Democratic primaries, Michael S. Dukakis, was strongly in favor of free trade. So was the guy who beat Mr. Dukakis in November, George H. W. Bush.
In presidential politics, the only thing worse than not getting the AFL-CIO's endorsement is getting it. The last two candidates to get its blessing early in the race were Walter F. Mondale and Al Gore, neither of whom spent the following four years being serenaded with "Hail to the Chief." Bill Clinton won even though the labor organization didn't get behind him until he already had the 1992 nomination sewn up.
The support of organized labor would be nicer if it didn't force a candidate to take positions that alienate so many other Americans. Mr. Gephardt has already gotten the endorsement of both the Teamsters and the United Steelworkers. But pandering to labor, though it may help him now, will probably doom him once actual voters get involved.
The AFL-CIO endorsement wasn't enough to save Mr. Mondale in 1984, when union members made up 19 percent of all workers. Since then, organized labor's share has shrunk to 13 percent of all employees - and just 9 percent in the private sector. Mr. Gephardt, who brags that he has been fighting free trade for 20 years, is offering top dollar for a dwindling asset.
Mr. Mondale lost partly because he was perceived, fairly or not, as the slavishly obedient son of Democratic special interests. Mr. Gephardt makes Mr. Mondale look like the soul of independence.
Trade is a make-or-break issue with unions, which regard imported goods the way Californians regard earthquakes. Most Americans, however, don't share that fear. To the contrary, they like being able to buy a range of economical products from all over the world, and they understand that foreign competition makes American companies more efficient and more attentive to consumers.
As a result, protectionist appeals usually fizzle at the polls. In 1988, Bob Dole thought he could beat George H. W. Bush in the South Carolina primary by denouncing textile imports, which competed with South Carolina companies. But locals apparently didn't care that much about South Carolina's fabric industry: They preferred Mr. Bush by more than 2-to-1. It turns out the state has a lot more people who buy textile products than people who make them.
Trade bashing was supposed to be a winner in 1992, thanks to a weak economy. It didn't turn out that way. Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey got nothing out of a campaign ad in which he stood in front of a hockey net threatening to keep out Japanese imports.
On the Republican side, veteran xenophobe Patrick J. Buchanan gave President Bush a scare in New Hampshire, but the threat evaporated once voters started paying attention to what he was saying. He didn't win a single primary.
Ross Perot, running as a third-party candidate that year, bitterly opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement. He got 19 percent of the vote in November. That sounds impressive until you consider that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, both of whom endorsed NAFTA, got a combined 80 percent.
Like Mr. Perot, Mr. Gephardt wants Americans to strike back against foreigners who insist on selling us things we want. But if fear of trade didn't work in 1992, when Japan was seen as an unbeatable rival, it certainly won't work now, when Japan is an economic invalid. Back then, Americans worried that NAFTA might send all our jobs to Mexico. Today, we know it didn't, and won't.
It may not be a coincidence that the Democratic Party enjoyed its greatest success from the 1930s into the 1960s, when it was the champion of free trade. Republicans eventually abandoned protectionism and have been winning presidential elections ever since.
Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, says the last time a protectionist party was the majority party nationally was in the 1920s, when high-tariff Republicans reigned.
Memo to Mr. Gephardt: Just because it worked for Herbert Hoover doesn't mean it will work for you.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.