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To any seasoned trade professional, a recent announcement from Washington DC came as both a surprise — and a cause for deep concern.  Senator Robert Portman, Republican from Ohio, one of the most respected voices on trade on Capitol Hill and an ardent free-trader, has announced his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), saying that the agreement does not provide a level playing field or adequate protections for US workers.

When the pro-free trade forces lose someone like Rob Portman, it’s time for a bit of soul-searching and a strategic re-think.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition Spring Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada April 25, 2015. REUTERS/David Becker
Sen. Rob Portman speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition Spring Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada April 25, 2015. Photo credit: reuters.com

Few in Congress possess Portman’s pro-free trade credentials, having served as the US Trade Representative under George W. Bush, and generally being regarded as one of the most informed voices in support of trade.  It was under Portman’s stewardship that the Central America Free Trade Agreement was negotiated and passed by Congress.  And in his current role as Senator, Portman voted in favor of granting Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to President Obama so that the TPP negotiations could be successfully concluded.

His announcement on TPP is an especially tough blow.  Any reading of the legislative math on Capitol Hill tells us that the TPP cannot be passed without broad Republican support, and if Portman has been lost, the likelihood of picking up the needed votes appears even more challenging. On top of that, the agreement is unlikely to be brought up for a vote before the Presidential election in November, and with all the remaining Presidential candidates voicing serious reservations – if not outright opposition – to the TPP, prospects for passage of the agreement look fairly grim.

What accounts for Portman’s change of heart? For starters, he is up for reelection this year, and trade does not for the most part “play” well in heavily industrialized Ohio, where job losses and factory closings have been, correctly or incorrectly, attributed to international trade.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Portman’s position as simple political expediency.  His change of heart is a symptom of a larger trend:  the ongoing breakdown of the traditional Washington consensus viewpoint in favor of free trade, and a growing sense among average citizens that trade works well for large corporations but not for them.

Supporters of free trade would do well to reflect on these realities, and to ask themselves some tough questions:  What are the legitimate criticisms that have been leveled against the TPP, and free trade in general?  How can these criticisms, and the painful dislocations which frequently accompany trade, be meaningfully addressed?  How c an a credible and balanced message – one that acknowledges the dislocations as well as the benefits of trade — be more effectively communicated?

To be sure, the US has benefited immensely from trade. Middle class Americans derive more than a quarter of their purchasing power through the lower prices brought by trade.  Businesses enjoy productivity gains through trade, and access to overseas markets has meant more jobs – and higher paying jobs –in the US.  Communicating these benefits more effectively, while not giving short-shrift to legitimate concerns, will be essential to restoring the consensus in favor of trade.

AuthorStephen Olson – Research Fellow at the Hinrich Foundation.
Follow Stephen Olson on Twitter @StephenOlsonHF