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Something” is definitely going on with the politics of international trade in the United States these days – I just wish I knew exactly what it is. But in the last few weeks, as the national and Congressional debates over President Obama’s trade agenda have heated up, any number of apparently conflicting and potentially important developments in this area have broken into the news.

The chief inconsistency seems to involve presidential candidates in both parties on the one hand, and some new poll results on the other.

If you were just following the 2016 presidential campaign so far, you’d think that support for new trade deals like the president’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has become absolutely toxic. Among Democrats, declared candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is dead-set against them, as is former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, whose announcement is imminent. Front-runner Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has a mixed trade policy record, but even though she pushed the Pacific Rim trade agreement as Mr. Obama’s Secretary of State, she’s evidently so wary of alienating voters that she refuses to take a stand either way now.

Opposition to new trade agreements is just as pronounced – and in many ways much more startling – among many Republican contenders and hopefuls. The GOP’s Congressional leadership has become a bulwark of the president’s hopes for fast-tracking such deals through Congress and thus greatly enhancing their chances of approval. But lots of the current Republican field is marching to a much different tune.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was a trade policy skeptic when he last ran in 2008, and still is.  Rick Perry has no such history. In fact, he was last seen as governor of Texas welcoming with open arms investments in his state by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer that’s viewed as a likely threat to U.S. national security by the executive branch and the Congress. But despite supporting TPP, he’s expressed major reservations about its transparency and about entrusting it to Mr. Obama.   

And then there are the cases of Carly Fiorina and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. The former, when she ran Hewlett Packard, defended her record of sending jobs and production to China with the (widely blasted) statement that “There is no job that is America’s God-given right anymore.” More revealing, she accused trade policy critics of naively seeking to “build walls around America” and “running away from the reality of the global economy.” Now she says she’s “very uncomfortable” with TPP.

Paul, of course, has been a darling of libertarians, but voted against fast tracking trade deals like the TPP through Congress. (Paul’s father, former Texas Congressman and presidential contender Ron, opposed many such agreements also, generally due to fears regarding American sovereignty and Constitution-related fast track concerns.)

The most interesting conversion, however, might be that of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. As I’ve written, when he last sought the GOP nomination four years ago, Santorum was the only Republican who spoke seriously about the importance of strengthening American manufacturing. But he also upbraided his rival Mitt Romney for risking a “trade war” with China by supporting currency-related sanctions and generally during his years in both the House and Senate was a reliable “Aye” vote for new trade deals.

But this time around, Santorum is showing signs of recognizing that credibly championing manufacturing isn’t possible without opposing the trade policies that have done so much to weaken its production and employment levels – along with its innovation capacity.

I can imagine that many readers will respond by noting that many Republicans are so hostile to President Obama that they would naturally oppose enhancing his authority in any way – and doubly so since there’s such widespread anger regarding his other alleged unconstitutional power grabs. But Fiorina for one has also hit America’s poor record of monitoring and enforcing trade deal provisions against cheating-minded governments and noted that one of the most notorious – China – could be added to the TPP without any Congressional input. In addition, as I’ve previously noted, opposition to current trade deals has dovetailed with other major elements of Tea Party platforms and the movement’s values since its birth.

Yet despite the trade skepticism throughout the field in Campaign 2016 so far, polls keep showing that Americans have become more receptive to new agreements. Typical is one just released by the Pew Foundation. It finds that 58 percent of U.S. adults “say free trade agreements with other countries have been a good thing for the U.S., while 33% say they have been a bad thing.” Moreover, according to Pew, this level of support is ten percentage points higher than in 2011.

In what will be heartening news to GOP presidential trade skeptics, only 53 percent of avowed Republicans view trade deals so favorably – a majority, but a much lower share than for either Democrats or independents. Of course, by the same token, the results raise questions about the Democratic hopefuls’ so-far unanimous opposition to new agreements absent major changes.

Since primary voters – which comes from each party’s hard-core base – are more partisan and ideologically fervent than the electorate as a whole, it’s likely that for that reason alone, attacking current trade policies will remain a big feature of Election 2016’s first half, and that few candidates will send much time defending them. That’s essentially what labor unions and environmental groups want to hear from Democrats, and what movement conservatives want to hear from Republicans.

But the Pew findings themselves are odd in several respects that makes their political interpretation less obvious for the general election. For instance, the poll reported both substantial and growing overall agreement that free trade agreements have benefited the nation, and less impressive (43 percent) but still growing overall agreement that such trade deals have helped their personal finances. Yet it also shows that by 34 percent to 31 percent, the public believes that these deals have slowed rather than sped up economic growth. By 46 percent to 17 percent, respondents said that they have fostered job loss instead of job creation. And by 46 percent to 11 percent, that they have reduced rather than increased wages. Also noteworthy (especially given the personal finance result above), nearly as many Americans (30 percent) blamed free trade agreements for raising consumer prices as credited them with lowering them (36 percent).

I can think of many possible explanations for these apparently paradoxical results. All polls suffer from the tendency of respondents to tell researchers what they think the latter want to hear as opposed to what they actually believe. Further, Main Street Americans can’t be expected to understand fully how trade policy effects the economy, in part because the Mainstream Media does such a lousy reporting job on this front. At the same time, a case can also be made that the Pew survey underscores consumption’s dominant role in both the U.S. economy overall and on Americans’ economic priority scales. Why else would they be so keen on the agreements, while believing that they depress growth, employment, and wages? Unless most Americans don’t believe that trade deals really affect them much personally at all? Or that they themselves are reaping the benefits while largely escaping the costs?

So it’s anything but clear how trade issues will affect the next presidential election on net. But if they stay in the spotlight, as seems distinctly possible given that the TPP itself is still being negotiated, that itself would be a big change.

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