A Democratic Trade Adjustment

The story of last year’s fight for Ohio is by now all too familiar. Foremost on the minds of most Ohioans, according to exit polls, was not Jane and Mary getting married or whether John Kerry tossed his Vietnam medals over the White House fence. It was jobs, or the lack thereof. The bludgeoning by the "New Economy" left few states bloodier than the Buckeye State, and Ohioans felt much of the pain of this transformation during Bush’s first term.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, between March 2001 and July 2004, nationwide non-farm employment dropped by a little more than 1 percent. In Ohio, employment dropped by almost 4 percent. Most dramatic was the rate of job "displacement," meaning long-held, full-time jobs lost to plant closures. Ohio’s rate -- at 2.1 percent -- was almost 2.5 times the national rate.

What’s more, as I pointed out in my last article, those displaced workers are largely on their own in Bush’s "Ownership Society." The Reagan and Bush I administrations slashed and burned trade adjustment assistance, long-term unemployment insurance and job training programs launched by Kennedy and strengthened by Nixon, just as the era of corporate-designed globalization began to pick up steam.

Yet in early 2004, as the presidential campaign gained steam, John Kerry said that he still supported NAFTA ("if I knew then what I know now ... "). His tepid try at a populist message on trade was that he’d "review" our trade deals within 120 days of taking office.

According to an Associated Press exit poll cited in USA Today, seven in 10 Ohio voters blamed foreign trade for taking away jobs, but Kerry won just half of their votes. If just 5 percent more in that group had gone for Kerry, he would have won almost 200,000 more votes and the presidency.

But some lessons are hard-learned. At the end of June, 10 Democratic Senators struck a blow for corporatism by voting in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Twelve Republicans voted against it -- without the aisle-crossers the deal would have died in the Senate. Then, last week, it happened again: 15 House Democrats voted for the agreement, 27 GOPers voted against and it squeaked by with a razor-thin margin.

That there’s still a debate within the Democratic establishment about whether to embrace or oppose the corporate "free-trade" agenda is an impressive illustration of the depth and breadth of the disconnect that exists between many Washington Democrats and the broader progressive community.

That disconnect has led too many Democrats to give up on a potent issue. Trade provides an entry point to a broader discussion of Americans’ growing economic insecurity, our changing workplaces, the influence of corporate money in politics and the fact that business interests have been gaming the system for their own narrow gain. Not opposing these deals makes sense only according to the rarified "logic" of the Washington Beltway.

Trade is an issue that reverberates with working Americans because people fear competition from abroad -- rightly or wrongly -- in a way that they don’t seem to fear being rolled over by the ideology and power of big business domestically.

Even Frank Luntz, the guru of right-wing rhetoric, is sensitive to Americans’ anxiety about the harsh winds of a free-wheeling global economy. He recently urged conservatives to never use the words "Global Economy/Globalization/Capitalism" as they represent "something big, something distant and something foreign." Republicans should avoid "talking about the principles of globalization," he warned. After all, "capitalism reminds people of harsh economic competition that yields losers as well as winners."

When you talk about trade policy, you’re really talking about the enormous influence of corporate power in our democracy. Leading up to last week’s fight over CAFTA, I spoke with Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown, the gutsy Ohioan who led the opposition to the treaty in the House. He explains the close connection between corporate power and government policy today:

Our political system is now up for the highest bidder: The Medicare law was written by the drug and insurance industries, the Social Security plan was written by Wall Street, energy bills are written by oil companies and environmental bills are written by the chemical companies. Similarly, this trade agreement -- CAFTA -- but other trade agreements too, have been written by a select few for a select few -- and that select few is typically the drug industry, the insurance and financial institutions, and the energy companies and the largest multinational corporations. It’s the same old song whether it’s international or it’s domestic.
In his book, The Myths of Free Trade, Brown described thousands of corporate jets stacked up over DC as industry execs descended on the city to lobby for NAFTA as the vote neared. Trade policy is clearly an insider’s game.

Consider that Trade Representative Rob Portman is a former Patton Boggs trade attorney and Republican congressman who President Bush called "a tireless advocate for America's manufacturers and entrepreneurs." He’s also a millionaire, thanks to his family’s heavy equipment company. His predecessor, Robert Zoellick, was a senior exec at Fannie Mae and sat on the boards of companies like Alliance Capital and Enron.

Public Citizen found that of 800 "experts" who sat on the advisory boards that hammered out the thousands of pages of WTO and NAFTA treaties, there were a dozen representatives of labor. The rest were multinational execs and various lawyers, lobbyists and sundry industry experts. There was zero input from human rights groups; zero input from environmentalists; zero input from the rest of society.

So what explains some Democrats’ continued failure to appreciate how valuable an issue trade can be? Most on the left assume that it’s all about money. Their corporate paymasters want these free trade deals, and the Dems fork over the votes, however reluctantly.

That plays a role, but it’s much more about ideological timidity. The Right’s message machine -- yes, amplified by those corporate donors as well as the deep-pocket Dems of the DLC -- has been very consistent about framing this debate as one between "free-traders" and "protectionists," and for some Democrats that’s a powerful disincentive for speaking out about trade policy. Nobody wants to stand against "freedom," no matter how false the premise behind this kind of freedom. Kerry was no different when he got to Ohio, trying to straddle the Democratic and corporate wings of the party by portraying himself as a centrist (which he certainly was), and also as a champion of the working class (which he certainly wasn’t).

I asked Sherrod Brown what it was like working an issue that has been so thoroughly framed along simplistic "free trade vs. protectionism" lines by politicians of both parties and the media. He said those labels amounted to nothing more substantive than "name-calling":
One of the interesting things with what’s happened on these votes is that they first said, "Vote for this because it’s a good trade issue, it’s going to help the economy." Nobody bought that so they start doing name-calling; they’re calling us protectionists, they say we’re Luddites, they say our heads are in the sand, we’re anti-poor -- whatever the kinds of things they say.
The American public understands that, yes, we want to trade -- Democrats, Republicans, small companies, big companies, labor unions -- we all want to trade, but we want it to lift workers in the developing world up and respect workers in our country and protect the environment.
The good news is that, according to Brown, the party is starting to change its tune, albeit grudgingly:
It’s been a slow movement really since NAFTA. ... It’s clear that Democrats look at this differently and Democrats understand that labor and environmental standards -- strong ones, not token environmental and labor standards -- have to be the core of any international trade we do. We want a global economy that’s very different from the one we have now and one that’s going in a very different direction from the direction we’re going in now.
Brown looks poised to take that message -- that we want a different kind of globalization -- and pound it hard on a larger stage. He recently launched a slick website, GrowOhio.org, and he’s trying to organize on the ground in all 88 Ohio counties -- not what you’d expect from someone running for re-election to Ohio’s 13th. The rumors have Brown gunning for Mike DeWine’s Senate seat.

If he takes the plunge against DeWine -- who’s never met a trade deal he didn’t like -- it’ll be a fascinating race to watch. Unlike John Kerry, with his awkward swipes at "Benedict Arnold CEOs," Brown challenges the very terms on which the trade debate plays out. It’s a fundamentally different approach, and one that is likely to resonate with voters. People are smart enough to know that trade isn’t necessarily the win-win game its rooters portray, and that instinctive understanding gives progressives an opportunity to break through the rhetoric and talk about the "New Economy" in real terms.

Which brings me back to those Democrats who defect on trade deals like CAFTA. The progressive community needs to start holding them accountable consistently. Last week, recriminations flew about the 15 House democrats (out of 202) who voted for the trade pact, but there was barely a whisper of condemnation for the 10 Senate Democrats (out of 44) who sent the vote to the House by supporting the deal in the first place (12 Senate republicans voted against it).

It’s somewhat mystifying given that the House leadership is serious about spanking members of their caucus who crossed the aisle, while Senate Dems did so with impunity. We need to be consistent, and that includes demanding straight talk from the next presidential nominee.

No Democrat should get away with voting for these trade deals the way they’re currently hammered out. Candidate Kerry’s whining that the only problem with the trade deals he supported for 15 years, including NAFTA, was just "the way that they haven’t been enforced" is simply not good enough.

We need more Browns and fewer John Kerrys if we want to talk to America’s vast middle. Democrats’ excuses for supporting these trade deals are growing stale. When they vote for a CAFTA, they should know exactly what to expect: more of what they got from NAFTA.

There are no unintended consequences; our trade deals have been enforced just as they were crafted to be by the people who lobbied for them and fine-tuned their language.

And while John Kerry might have had Ohio stolen from him, his utter inability to deal honestly with his long-held position on trade -- his blind refusal to confront the Bush economy head-on -- is, in the final analysis, the bigger reason why he couldn’t win Ohio.

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