Deep down, we had hoped Barack Obama was fibbing when he bashed the North American Free Trade Agreement on the campaign trail. After all, his senior economic policy advisor had, according to a leaked memo, assured Canadian officials that the talk was "more reflective of political maneuvering than policy." Yet amid reports Thursday that Obama had offered the crucial job of U.S. trade representative to a dyed-in-the-wool protectionist, it seems he was disastrously serious all along.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) could become the administration's point person on international trade. He's a terrible choice, and not just because of a history of unsavory behavior -- such as his successful efforts to win a pardon from President Clinton for convicted cocaine kingpin Carlos Vignali, or the screamingly unethical robo-calls his campaign engineered during his run for Los Angeles mayor in 2001. Becerra is a leader of the Democratic Party's protectionist wing, which opposes NAFTA, the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement and most other trade deals.
Free trade irks many liberals because it can shift American jobs to other countries, but it almost invariably does more good than harm, lowering prices for goods and creating new jobs to make up for those it displaces. What's more, history shows that the last thing the country should do during an economic downturn is become more protectionist. A year after the market crash of 1929, Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, raising U.S. tariffs dramatically in an attempt to protect jobs. It fueled a global meltdown that greatly worsened the Depression.
Sometimes political hypocrisy gets a bad rap. If Becerra turns the job down, and we deeply hope he will, Obama should break his promises and appoint a free-trader as trade representative.