Are Democrats Blowing A Chance In A Generation on Trade?

It wasn't a surprise but it is still disappointing that the so-called "free trade" deal with Peru passed the House yesterday--and, unfortunately, with too many Democrats voting for the deal. We missed a teachable moment--a moment to reframe the debate on trade relations with other countries. Here's what the Democratic Party should be saying.

Actually, mainly in the House, we had been moving in the right direction on opposition to so-called "free trade." Fewer and fewer Democrats have been voting for these agreements (for example, the Central American Free Trade Agreement received only 15 Democratic votes in the House). And as Public Citizen's Lori Wallach points out, 117 Democrats voted against the Peru deal:

Despite intense pressure and lobbying from some Democratic leaders, a massive corporate coalition and the White House, a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives today opposed Bush's Peru NAFTA expansion agreement, echoing the American public's widespread discontent with the status quo trade policy.

That a majority of Democrats opposed the Peru NAFTA expansion - theoretically the least controversial of Bush's remaining trade deals - will put the final nails in the coffins of any further Bush administration expansions of NAFTA to Panama, Colombia or South Korea.

In particular, freshman Democrats voted against the deal, having won their elections partly due to campaign messages that included opposition to so-called "free trade." A drum roll and applause for:

1. Arcuri (NY)

2. Altmire (PA)

3. Boyda (KS)

4. Carney (PA)

5. Cohen (TN)

6. Courtney (CT)

7. Donnelley (IN)

8. Ellison (MN)

9. Hall (NY)

10. Hare (IL)

11. Hirono (HI)

12. Hodes (NH)

13. Johnson, Hank (GA)

14. Kagen (WI)

15. Loebsack (IA)

16. McNerney (CA)

17. Murphy C. (CT)

18. Murphy P. (PA)

19. Richardson (CA)

20. Rodriguez (TX)

21. Sarbanes (MD)

22. Shea-Porter (NH)

23. Shuler (NC)

24. Space (OH)

25. Sutton (OH)

26. Tsongas (MA)

27. Walz (MN)

28. Welch (VT)

29. Wilson (OH)

30. Yarmouth (KY)

On the other hand, 11 freshman voted for the deal:

1. Castor (FL)

2. Clarke (NY)

3. Ellsworth (IN)

4. Gillibrand (NY)

5. Hill, B. (IN)

6. Klein (FL)

7. Lampson (TX)

8. Mahoney (FL)

9. Mitchell (AZ)

10. Perlmutter (CO)

11. Sestak (PA)

As a New Yorker, I can't resist one passing observation: why Yvette Clarke, who represents some of the poorest people in Brooklyn, would vote for this deal, which will do nothing for her constituents, is beyond me--unless this is some way of her catching some campaign cash down the road and/or currying favor with Speaker Pelosi, who also voted for this deal.

So, why should the so-called "free trade" deal with Peru have gone down to defeat and what should the party be saying about trade? The Democrats who voted for the deal are, in my humble opinion, buying a phony framework for trade. They are being told that the main problem with these deals is that they have not included provisions that address labor and environmental standards. If you look at the narrow frame of the deal--that is, is it good that there will be labor and environmental provisions in so-called "free trade" agreements--you can say, "sure, there is some progress." And since the Peru deal did include such provisions, well, then, some Democrats--and the pundit class--argue there is no reason to oppose such an agreement because we have to be open to the world trading system and not become...horror of all horrors...protectionists.

This is a false and politically idiotic frame to accept.

We are not debating "protectionism" versus "free trade." These are just marketing phrases. There is no such thing as so-called "free trade." Once you use that phrase and defend yourself as not being a "protectionist," you are just reinforcing that the debate is a struggle between two concepts, which are really figments of the imagination.

A secondary frame that is at play is the seductive notion that there is a totally new world out there thanks to technology and so-called "free trade" is an essential element of the new world--we hear that rap from the pundits, economists, and, unfortunately, even a labor leader or two.

This is also idiotic. There is nothing new about trade. We've traded around the globe for all of human history. Technology does allow information and capital to move more quickly around the world.

What we are debating are the RULES that will govern how goods and services are exchanged between people. The central problem of so-called "free trade" is this:

So-called "free trade" agreements start out from the wrong premise: that trade agreements should be primarily about protecting investment and capital and, then, only as an afterthought, do the agreements wrestle with how workers and the environment should be treated.

And what are the rules in the so-called "free trade" agreements?

The so-called "free trade" deal with Peru, like the other similar agreements still, include NAFTA-style Chapter 11 foreign investor rights. These rights encourage U.S. companies to move offshore, as well as open up basic U.S. environmental, health, zoning and other laws to attack (they allow a company to argue that a pro-labor or pro-consumer law constitute an unfair trade barrier and, therefore, needs to be eliminated).

These deals still allow companies to attack prevailing wage laws, recycled content and renewable energy policy remain.

These deals still contain agriculture rules that displace millions of peasant farmers increasing hunger,social unrest, and desperate migration.

These deals still allow food safety limits that require us to import meat not meeting our safety standards.

These deals still allow drug companies to extend patent rights that undermine affordable access to medicine.

These deals still let U.S. firms, such as Citibank, demand compensation if, for example, Peru tries to reverse course and end its awful social security privatization.

So, as you can see, the basic structure of the economic system stays in place. What Democrats are left to defend, then, is a vote that changes things around the edges. As I said before, it's not terrible that there are labor and environmental provisions slapped on to the so-called "free trade" deal with Peru. The problem is that, even if those provisions are enforced, they do not change the basic economic framework being imposed on our citizens and people around the world. And, then, Democrats are left promoting things like retraining--a failed policy--to make up for an economic system that is rapacious.

And, politically, this is just dumb. In the short term, I suppose party leaders see support for so-called "free trade" guaranteeing that campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists will still flow to Democrats. But, that is no guarantee for success.

In 1993, NAFTA passed with the enthusiastic support of Bill Clinton (and, I would point out, Robert Reich, his Secretary of Labor). A year later, Democrats lost the House. Much of the blame for that electoral defeat--which then lead to more than a decade of an unraveling of our basic social compact in America, not to mention the bludgeoning of hundreds of millions of people around the world--was laid at the feat of the failed health care proposal promoted by the Administration.

I would argue that the passage of NAFTA played a crucial role, as well. Many union members were disgusted by the specter of a Democratic president flogging a deeply flawed agreement--and it was known, then, that the deal was deeply flawed--and many of them stayed home in November 1994. A bunch voted for Republicans on non-economic issues. Many of the races lost by Democrats in 1994 were lost by slim margins.

Fast forward to today. Not only did Public Citizen document how many freshman Democrats were elected in 2006 because of their clear opposition to so-called "free trade," but we now know that a majority of REPUBLICANS oppose these bad trade deals.

It is simply insane, morally and politically, to continue to support any vestige of so-called "free trade."

So, to wrap up, what should the frame be? Here is a modest, short version:

Democrats believe that the First Principle of trade should be that it enhances the quality of life of communities here and around the world. Democrats believe that every American should have a job with decent wages and dignity at work. We also believe that our country's role in the world should be to promote strong partnerships with other countries so that we can exchange goods, services, and ideas that raise the living standards of people everywhere. When living standards for people around the globe allow them to provide for their families, then, they are not forced to become economic refugees and move to other countries to survive. Democrats also believe that economic progress is possible without poisoning our air, streams, lakes, food and the rest of our environment.

So, with that in mind, we, then, will work to create trade agreements that cherish those ideas and allow corporations to implement those principles.

It's not hard to figure this out. Do we have the will and the courage to reject corporate campaign cash to make this happen?