PAT BUCHANAN is promising a bloody trade war with America's best customers. If elected president, he vows to raise import tariffs, even though this would make everything consumers buy, from cars to athletic shoes, more expensive. He is telling farmers in Iowa he would withdraw from world trade agreements, even though the newest trade deal would open huge new global markets to U.S. farmers. And for this he is gaining votes and political stature.

Worse yet, Mr. Buchanan's surprisingly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses Monday and in Louisiana the week before is causing more credible presidential candidates to adopt his protectionist theories. Sen. Bob Dole, who knows better, has been backing away from free trade issues for months now. Entering the New Hampshire primaries, Mr. Dole is beginning to sound more populist than Mr. Buchanan himself.Indeed, trade protectionism is spreading like measles, even into the White House. The Clinton administration recently blocked plans to open the southern U.S. border to Mexican trucking, largely because of hectoring from the likes of Mr. Buchanan. When Florida officials recently imposed discriminatory restrictions on foreign produce, the administration looked the other way. On the broader issue of new trade agreements - with Latin America, Asia, Europe or anyone else - the administration has tested the political winds and turned tail.

Demagoguery tends to play well in election years, especially early on. Mr. Buchanan played this card early in the 1992 presidential race before fading. He now proudly wears the populist mantle that made Ross Perot such a hit in the last presidential election.

While Mr. Buchanan's ideas are plainly foolish, Mr. Buchanan himself is no fool. He understands the economic uncertainty in many parts of the country, and he has skillfully exploited it. His appeal to a nation unnerved by stagnating wages, corporate downsizing and corrupt politicians is effective. When AT&T, a rock of corporate stability, recently announced 40,000 job cuts, Mr. Buchanan's warnings seemed all the more credible.

Mr. Buchanan's problem is that his memory is selective, his facts incomplete and his economics wrong. He blames imports for all the America's woes, even though changing technology has done far more to unsettle the workplace. He blames Japanese cars, Chinese clothing and European appliances for destroying U.S. jobs, even though they provide affordable, quality alternatives to millions of U.S. consumers.

As president, Mr. Buchanan would raise tariffs on Japanese goods, yet he

forgets the disastrous results from past protectionism. When the U.S. government in the 1980s imposed limited restrictions on imports of Japanese cars, prices eventually rose $1,500 per car higher than they would have in a more competitive market. But Mr. Buchanan never tells his audience this.

Nor does he explain that Midwestern companies like Caterpillar, with its union work force, will sell more construction equipment overseas because trade agreements have lowered its foreign tariffs by $100 million a year. He also

forgets that while America's current trade barriers - mainly in the textile industry - do protect some jobs, they impose a stiff price: $170,000 in higher consumer costs for each job saved, six times more than each of those jobs pay.

For every simplistic argument Mr. Buchanan makes, there are dozens of others to refute him. Fortunately, America does not have a recent record of electing protectionists to office. The real danger is that those who are elected will feel obligated to carry out Mr. Buchanan's dangerous policies.

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