Getting juiced

November 12, 2003

PEOPLE USED to talk about the breathtaking political savvy of the Bush administration, but you don't hear that so much any more -- and if you want a sense of why that is, just consider the continuing fiasco over steel tariffs.

In March 2002, the White House imposed a series of stiff taxes on imported steel, and it was as plain as day that the move was directed at the key steel-making swing states; there was no logical explanation otherwise. It ran counter to President Bush's aversion to taxes, to his advocacy of free trade, and to the advice of his treasury secretary. It infuriated Europe, Japan and Russia, it hurt U.S. steel-consuming businesses, and it irritated conservatives around the country.

Today, studies show that the tariffs cost the economy more than they help, and that little of the benefit is finding its way into the pockets of steelworkers. Their union has endorsed Democratic Rep. Richard A. Gephardt for president in 2004.

And, oh, yes, Europe, Japan and Russia are still mightily irritated.

On Monday, the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States. The European Union threatens to retaliate against Florida citrus growers, among others. That's an appallingly direct attempt to attack a president of the United States politically, but it's what Mr. Bush asked for when he took this route in the first place.

So here's his choice: He can stay the course, and have half the world at his throat over this issue, or he can blame it all on the WTO, and cancel the tariffs. That would make the swing-state steelworkers even angrier -- and understandably so. It's a fine political fix he's in. But if he does the right thing, and axes the tariffs ... well, at least he'll have the orange juice lobby behind him.

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