After an uncertain start, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is running the office of U.S. Trade Representative with his usual flair and getting good reviews besides. The New York Times, in a recent article, called him “patient and unperturbed,” and reported “a lot of good will” generated by Mr. Kirk in a visit to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Not only did he talk up the Doha Round of WTO negotiations which badly need a boost to get them going again, he also promised action on the free trade agreements reached by the Bush administration with Panama, Colombia and South Korea.
Prospects looked bad for all of them when Mr. Kirk appeared at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee in March. Diffident and downright cool to these accords, he showed no interest in pursuing any of them, with the exception of Panama.
By mid-April everything was different. Speaking to the Georgetown University Law Center, Ron Kirk sounded like the old campaigner who had fought for NAFTA in Dallas. Even Republicans took notice, and one of them attributed the change to President Obama’s forays into foreign policy at the G-20 summit in London. In all likelihood, said this official from the Bush administration, the president got a whiff of what protectionism would mean and passed it along to his trade rep. “I don’t care where it came from,” was the sentiment, as long as it sticks.
Chances are it will, if Mr. Kirk can recover fully his former convictions and firm up his nerve to carry the ball for trade within the Obama circle, where unions will always be strong and their fear of foreign products a given, even when sales abroad of American goods, made by Americans, are part of the package. There’s nobody better, however, than Ron Kirk to counter this opposition.
As if girding for battle on Capitol Hill, he has armed himself with staffers who once worked for Senators Max Baucus and John Kerry as well as President Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. To this he can add his own considerable gifts which are not to be underestimated. At a press conference in Geneva, he called every reporter by name, which never hurts in politics. He also has developed the winsome habit of dropping African proverbs into his speeches, such as “two people in a burning hut don’t have time to argue.”
But some will argue nonetheless, and the field is mined for trouble. Not that much has changed since last September when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to bring the Colombian free trade agreement to the floor. President Bush worked hard to pass it, and believed he had the votes, but never was there an official tally.
One observer has noted that in trade dealings both sides spend themselves heavily, whether it’s on sugar, textiles or something else. That’s why our negotiating partners resist shedding their own blood unless the U.S. president has trade promotion authority, which means the accord would have to be voted up or down in Congress, without amendments that would rip it apart. What they never contemplated in Bogata last September was no vote at all. It amounted to breaking faith with Colombia, and that’s no way to treat a friend or to reassure other nations that we are reliable.
Mr. Kirk told the Senate Finance Committee that President Obama at some point would have to seek trade promotion authority himself, but some are saying this may be a string that has long since been played out. It may be necessary to try instead for rules governing the passage of trade legislation that would accomplish some of the same things.
There are those who compare Ron Kirk to Bob Strauss, USTR under Jimmy Carter, and they do both have a wonderful sense of humor and a winning way with people. As he moves deeper into new territory, Mr. Kirk would be wise to remember Bob Strauss’s best argument for free trade: “The consumers of the world have a right to buy the best possible products at the lowest possible price.” That’s true. All that’s needed now for Ron Kirk to succeed in a tough job is a little luck and a lot of belief in the rightness of his brief. It would help as well to have the support of the speaker of the House.