Democrats Lose By Pandering to Unions on Free Trade

Posted August 7, 2003 at 9:43am

By pandering to another interest group, the AFL-CIO, the Democratic presidential candidates on Tuesday made it more difficult for one of them to oust President Bush in 2004.

With three momentary exceptions when Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) showed some courage and independence, the nine candidates fell all over themselves to tell the trade union convention in Chicago exactly what it wanted to hear on every issue.

[IMGCAP(1)] In the process, some candidates — Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) — abandoned previous positions in favor of free trade, an idea that is popular with Americans almost everywhere except at the AFL-CIO.

And former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who wasn’t asked a question about trade, has indicated elsewhere that he, too, is backing away from his previous free-trade stance.

The labor movement is determinedly protectionist, following an archaic economic model that envisions keeping U.S. wages up by keeping cheaper foreign products out — yet at the same time insisting that other countries buy American goods even though their workers can’t get richer by selling to the United States.

Free trade economics — once embraced by the Democratic Party, but now a Republican idea — holds that workers everywhere get richer when their countries can sell their products in world markets and buy commodities at the cheapest price.

Or, Graham said in one departure from AFL-CIO orthodoxy, “the United States does not have the choice to become a protectionist nation. We are the leader of the world economy.”

In another show of independence, Lieberman said that he’d “probably” vote in favor of a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which the Bush administration is currently negotiating.

A Pew Research Center poll published in June shows that the idea of open global markets is popular around the world — even in the U.S. during a time of economic uncertainty.

According to the poll, 79 percent of Americans say that global trade and business ties are “very” or “somewhat” good for the country. By 62 percent to 23 percent, Americans say that “globalization” has a “good effect” on the country. And 81 percent think it’s good that goods from around the world are available in the United States.

If they follow the AFL-CIO line, Democrats will slam smack into those public attitudes — and will be accused by Republicans of wanting to close America off from world markets that will continue to prosper without the United States.

Among the serious Democratic candidates, the most loyal to the union line is Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), who boasted that “I am the one who not only voted against, but led the fight against, NAFTA and China free trade and Singapore and Chile” free trade agreements.

“Check our record. Check who was there when the fat was in the fire and we had to fight against even our own president to beat NAFTA and beat China,” he said.

In spite of that record — and endorsements from 10 individual unions — the AFL-CIO as a whole opted this week not to grant Gephardt an early endorsement. The union will meet in October to decide which candidate to back.

It was apparently to forestall a Gephardt endorsement — and woo union households in early primary states — that Kerry and Edwards backtracked on their free trade records.

During the Clinton administration, Kerry supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, normalized trade relations with China and “fast track” negotiating authority for the president. He again supported “fast track” — now known as “trade-promotion authority” — under Bush.

Edwards voted for China free trade, courageously standing up to textile interests in North Carolina, and voted once in favor of trade-promotion authority and once against it.

In Chicago, Kerry was asked how he’d vote on a yet-to-be-finalized Free Trade Area of the Americas. He replied, “If it were before me today, I’d would vote against because it doesn’t have environmental or labor standards in it.”

Edwards said that “we can have free trade, but we need fair trade also, which is why I voted against fast track, why I voted against the Singapore Trade Agreement, why I voted against the Chile Trade Agreement, why I voted against the Caribbean Trade Agreement.”

Dean, who once called himself a “strong supporter” of NAFTA and supported fast-track during the Clinton administration, has indicated lately that he’d “renegotiate” NAFTA to insert more labor and environmental standards.

Bush administration officials contend it would be seen as a violation of other countries’ sovereignty — or as an attempt to put them at a trade disadvantage — to compel them to change their labor or environmental laws.

Instead, in its aggressive drive for new bilateral, regional and global trade agreements, the administration instead requires countries to live up to their own laws — and, if they don’t, to pay fines that are used to upgrade labor and environmental standards.

Labor and its adherents don’t regard such provisions as adequate. In fact, they haven’t found any open trade agreement they can support, even when negotiated by a Democratic president.

In the only other moment of independence shown in Chicago, Lieberman said he favors school voucher experiments to allow poor children to attend private schools and create competition for public schools to help them improve. He was booed.

The Democrats have put in pandering performances before the Children’s Defense Fund, the Human Rights Campaign and now the AFL-CIO. Is it any wonder that voters find them too beholden to special-interest groups?