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Flashback: Free Trade and the Gipper

As the 2016 presidential rhetoric cranks up, the one point you’re not going to hear shouted about is “free trade.” It’s the altar of economic truth at which both parties now worship. But back in 1986, free trade and another icon — Ronald Reagan — were not so easy to ignore, considering the catastrophic hit that trade policy was about to put on Alabama’s textile companies.

Here are some excerpts from Business Alabama’s October 1986 Business & Politics column by Bessie Ford:

Overpowering President Reagan wasn’t going to be easy. Virtually impossible — that’s how the textile industry assessed its chances of overriding the presidential veto of a bill to limit textile imports. Proponents of the Textile and Trade Enforcement bill gave it their best shot. They came up only eight votes short of hitting pay dirt, but coming close doesn’t count in the big league. 

Frustrated textile lobbyists are gearing up for a heated battle next year. 

An estimated 300,000 Americans lost their jobs in the textile-apparel industry during the last five years. That includes about 12,800 Alabamians. Industry spokesmen warn that the numbers will increase if imports are not curbed.

Arguments for and against the legislation are relatively simple. The textile-apparel industry thinks it is getting a raw deal because imports have penetrated 55 percent of the U.S. market. Japan, Taiwan and Korea have thrown up four times as many trade barriers as the Unites States while those same countries encourage the Reagan administration’s free trade policies.

Alabama’s House delegation — five Democrats and two Republicans — voted unanimously for the override, despite arm-twisting from the White House.

Most of the Alabama proponents of the import ceiling movement are trying to avoid the appearance of being in open conflict with Reagan. They are constantly reminded that Reagan is extremely popular in the state. They seek to place the blame on his advisers. 

While the loss of textile-apparel jobs has hit the industry hard and brought suffering to hundreds of displaced workers, the problem has not touched a broad base of Alabama voters to the extent it has in North Carolina and South Carolina. Until it does, Alabama politicians will have to be careful to see which way the wind is blowing. 

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