FOR years, starting with Franklin Roosevelt, Republicans simply couldn't find the winning side of issues. But since 1980 President Reagan and the GOP have gained a firm hold on the reduce-spending, reduce-the-size-of-government issue. Indeed, Democratic politicians everywhere are confirming the strength of that position by making it a part of their own programs. Now Democrats are lining up on the side of protectionism, hailing it as an issue that could sweep them back into the presidency. Yet that position may be one which will help the GOP more than them.
Republican John P. Sears III, a realist when assessing political positions, says of the drive by many Democrats to protect US industry: ``It is one of those Lorelei things. When you are out of power, it looks attractive. But as you get into it, it is fraught with difficulty.'' He adds: ``I don't think our trade policy can really be the issue, because, frankly, as much as you hear about it in Washington, there just aren't enough people who are directly harmed by it. And there's a good side to it. T he consumers, although not organized, are certainly not for higher prices.''
Protectionism is playing where industries have been hard hit by foreign imports, and Democrats may benefit from it there. But most voters may well reject protectionism.
What the Democrats don't realize is that in identifying with protectionism they are giving up one of their best issues to the Republicans.
Special Trade Ambassador Clayton Yeutter has underscored what pollsters and political reporters have been finding for years: that most Americans feel comfortable with a free-trade policy.
Democrats, led by Cordell Hull and Dean Acheson, helped shape public acceptance of free trade as an extension of US idealism. Pre-FDR support of high tariffs by Republicans (highlighted by their passage of Smoot-Hawley in 1930) became, in the eyes of Americans, not only wrong from an economic standpoint but also something of a moral negative. Thus, it is an ``evil'' image of protectionism that Democrats helped create in the minds of voters -- which they will have to deal with as they reverse their posit ion.
Republicans after World War II saw that free trade was the way to go for the nation and their own political future. With Dwight Eisenhower, they moved away from protectionism. Now Reagan has come on stage as a free-trader. And Democrats, instead of hanging onto a position that has been good to them, are handing him the issue.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.