Chris Christie: Maybe it's time to take a second look at NAFTA

In case foreign policy wasn’t enough of a flashpoint, it’ll be fun watching Christie duke it out with Rand Paul at the debates over free trade.

Maybe this is his concession to blue-collar workers after getting hammered by Huckabee for floating entitlement reform a few weeks ago.

It’s crazy to flirt with protectionism in a GOP primary, right? Well, actually … no, especially if you’re a centrist like Christie who’s selling yourself to Republicans as a guy who could get a hard look from middle-class swing voters in the general election. New from YouGov:


Just 10 percent of Republicans said free-trade agreements are good for wages in the U.S. Nor is GOP antipathy to NAFTA a very recent phenomenon. Here’s another poll from 2012 showing, once again, that Republican opposition outpaces the other party’s:


Christie’s NAFTA gambit makes three splashily unorthodox panders to blue-collar voters in less than a week by three different GOP candidates. First came Huckabee reversing himself on entitlement reform and adopting a “molon labe” approach to Social Security and Medicare. Then came Scott Walker’s turnaround on immigration yesterday, in which a guy who wanted to solve illegal immigration with more legal immigration two years ago is now a Jeff Sessions disciple who thinks we need to limit legal immigration too in the name of protecting wages. Today it’s Christie’s turn. I can understand his strategy in attacking NAFTA and Huck’s strategy in attacking entitlement reform: They’re both running as plain-spoken centrist populists with working-class appeal. I’m having more trouble understanding Walker’s strategy. He wants to appeal to the working class too, of course, but the issue he’s chosen is riskier politically than the ones chosen by Christie and Huckabee. Philip Klein:

If Walker now believes that American workers should be protected from competition, why stop with immigration? By that logic, why support free trade?

Even putting aside the economic arguments (Walker showed with his ethanol shift that he’s willing to put short-term political considerations ahead of sound economic policy) it’s unclear what his crass political thinking is here.

Walker doesn’t need to be the most conservative candidate in the race, as long as he remains broadly acceptable to conservatives and to the right of the establishment candidates. But it strikes me that there’s plenty of room to the right of Jeb Bush on immigration without talking about restrictions on legal immigration to protect American workers. Walker, it seems, has decided that he wants to ensure nobody can get further to his right on immigration.

The one thing all Republican candidates seem to agree on, Ted Cruz included, is that the GOP nominee can’t be as far right as Romney was in 2012 on immigration. None of them are endorsing “self-deportation” this time; all of them (yes, Cruz too) support legalization for illegals of some kind. That’s their concession to a Latino demographic that broke by more than 40 points for Obama three years ago and that’s growing as a share of the electorate each cycle. Now here comes Walker suddenly bearish on legal immigration, staking himself to the right of everyone in the field — even Cruz. Why? All he had to do to get right with the base on this issue is support the same “security first, then we’ll talk about amnesty later” position that most everyone else is taking. In fact, he’s the one guy among the top center-right candidates of Bush, Rubio, and Walker who doesn’t need to pander to conservatives too much; his victory over labor in Wisconsin has already given him a huge line of credit in the ideological bank. Assuming he’s the nominee, what does he do now to back away from his new position once Latino voters begin grumbling about it and Team Hillary demagogues it to the hilt? Is he planning yet another reversal, back to his original (and heartfelt, let’s face it) pro-amnesty position, just in time for the general election? I know which way I’m betting.