The question of who would be the better free trading president is of interested to the highly important swing electorate of hawkish libertarian academic webloggers who are disappointed in the Bush administration’s competency, so here are my toughts. Obviously, both Bush and Kerry are not opposed to some obfuscation in this area. Their records, however, are pretty clear. Bush thinks that the best strategy for him is to talk like a free trader and then become a protectionist fairly frequently for political purposes. Kerry, on the other hand, has a pretty unambiguous pro-trade voting record and likes to cover his flanks with bouts of protectionist rhetoric. Projecting into the future, then, I would say Kerry is more likely to engage in actual lowerings of trade barriers.
On the other hand, like Clinton in his second term, Kerry will probably try to appease some elements of his base by attaching unenforceable labor and environmental standards into trade agreements, which will make it somewhat harder to get treaties agreed to. On the other hand, insofar as treaties are put in place, Kerry is less likely to invoke anti-dumping loopholes and so forth.
Another important factor is the legislature, where the Congressional Black Caucus has staked out the principled position that it will vote for trade agreements when Democrats are in the White House, but not otherwise. Okay, that’s not a principled position at all, but it is there position. There are some GOP House members with similar views, but they are smaller in number. Last but not least, the nature of protectionism is likely to be different because the parties have different geographical bases. Bush-protectionism is more likely to be in the primary goods sector (lumber, shrimp, farms) and Kerry-protectionism is more likely to be of finished goods (cars, refrigerators), though I might be wrong about that. In general, I would say the trend is against protectionism in the Democratic Party since the industrial unions are an ever-smaller faction of the AFL-CIO. Neither the public sector unions nor the service sector ones have any interest in protectionism, while the GOP’s farmers do and they’re rapidly incorporating the coal industry into their coalition since environmentalists are bad for coal anyway.