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Bush, Kerry seem to be in a scarily similar economic page

In theory, a national campaign for president should bring to the fore important issues affecting the nation. But in reality, the early signs are that not much of a serious debate will take place as Democratic Sen. John Kerry cranks up his campaign against President George W. Bush.

The presumptive Democratic nominee is sticking his finger in the wind, gauging which problems in the economy or national security he can blame on the current president. And President Bush, of course, is looking for symbolic ways to bolster his presidency.

Both candidates are now trading jabs about the economy and free trade. Sen. Kerry, who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals, is now sounding like an economic nationalist, preying on Americans’ exaggerated fears of jobs being sent overseas. President Bush, meanwhile, has backed some protectionist deals (i.e., steel, soft lumber) but now is coming out strongly for free trade.

In fairness, President Bush has long been an advocate, if not always a practitioner, of free trade. And his defense of international markets, delivered during a Commerce Department awards ceremony on Tuesday, was right on point.

“As our economy moves forward and new jobs are added, some are questioning whether American companies and American workers are up to the challenge of foreign competition,” he said. “There are economic isolationists in our country who believe we should separate ourselves from the rest of the world by raising up barriers and closing off borders. They’re wrong.”

President Bush’s words were a veiled attack on Sen. Kerry.

The Massachusetts Democrat’s policies do fit the economic isolationist theme. Sen. Kerry talks about punishing countries that don’t “play by the rules” and about imposing U.S.-style labor and environmental standards on other countries. But if the United States only trades with countries that have our same level of wages and regulations, then we will trade only with a handful of countries. Everyone will lose out economically.

Economic growth is the key to creating improvements in wages, labor conditions and environmental standards. Yet Sen. Kerry has vowed a review of all U.S. trade deals and proposes offering incentives to “good companies” that keep jobs here.

He refers to companies that outsource some jobs as Benedict Arnolds. This is frightening talk, although it is uncertain if it is indeed anything more than campaign talk.

A key point is missing from the debate: the degree to which an excessively large U.S. government, with a punitive tax and regulatory system, is driving good jobs overseas. A president only has limited ability to fix an economy, given that the economy is driven largely by market factors. But he has a great ability to sabotage an economy with too many rules and regulations, too high taxes and unfair trade barriers.

We’re waiting for a discussion of these factors. Of course, given the current president’s support for big government and the Democratic nominee’s support for even-bigger government, we might be waiting a long time.