Virtually every time a so-called "free trade" agreement comes before Congress, you can almost predict what happens: the elites rally to figure out a way to push through these deals, pouring in huge resources to buy votes and pushing a propaganda campaign that is far-reaching. And it is no different with the push to get the so-called "free trade" deal with Colombia passed.
Either Clinton and Barack Obama secretly favor free trade but are pandering to blue-collar voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania by pretending they don't, or they actually believe their anti-trade rhetoric and simply employed campaign advisors who weren't on the same page. It's tough to figure out which is worse, but it will be even tougher for the candidates to escape from the corner they've painted themselves into if one of them ends up in the White House.
For Clinton and Obama, there can be no happy ending to this story. As president, they could either break their promises and embrace trade deals with the likes of Mexico and Colombia, thus disillusioning a key part of their base, or keep their word, thus badly harming foreign relations, damaging the U.S. economy and ultimately reducing job prospects for the very workers they purport to be trying to protect.
Bill Clinton proved to Democrats that the party could both support sensible trade policies and win elections. It's a shame that his potential successors have forgotten that lesson.
A few thoughts about this little screed. First, when you read that, by keeping their promises, either Clinton or Obama would do damage to the economy or job prospects, understand that the people shilling for so-called "free trade" are people whose jobs have never been threatened by deals whose central driving force is the search for the lowest wage possible. No editor of the L.A. Times sits in his or her leather chair, around a nice conference table, just before stepping out for lunch at a fine eatery and ever worries about the real consequences of so-called "free trade". Their entire understanding comes from some vague marketing phrase (it's free!!! it's trade!!!) or, as likely, having sat in an Economics 101 course in college where a professor preached the virtue of David Ricardo's theory of "free trade" (which, by the way, may never have existed and certainly doesn't exist today).
Second, what exactly are these great job prospects? Are they the jobs that workers get because when they are retrained? Retraining is a hoax. What wages will those jobs pay? The editorial doesn't say. As Jesse Jackson once said, "Even slaves had jobs".
Finally, actually, in my opinion, the lesson we should learn from Bill Clinton is the opposite: that you lose elections when you support so-called "free trade". I acknowledge that I may be in the distinct minority on this topic, but I've never understood the nostalgia for the Clinton years (though, I understand that compared to today's administration we would be inclined to think of those years fondly). The Democratic Party went into a steep decline, and lost election after election at the local, state and federal level under Clinton; the Democrats lost Congress, held fewer governorships, fewer Senate seats and ceded lots of local posts. Actually, opposing these so-called "free trade" deals is much better politics, as we saw in 2006, and even a majority of Republicans oppose the deals.
I would argue that a large part of that was precisely because of Clinton's embrace of NAFTA and so-called "free trade". Whole segments of voters, who were under enormous financial pressures in the 1980s and 1990s because of a declining economic future (stock market bubbles, partly blessed by the Clinton-Greenspan-Rubin policies, don't count as real income advances, by the way, when your wages are stagnant, pensions evaporate, college tuition skyrockets and you have no health care) never could see a huge difference between the Republican-driven, lobbyist-fed trade policies and the Democratic-driven lobbyist-fed trade policies.
And, indeed, The New York Times has a fascinating piece (kudos) today about the bedfellows uniting to push the Colombia deal:
There have been all-expense paid trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress, featuring coffee tastings and dinner at a posh restaurant inside an old Spanish fort. The Colombian president has visited Washington to make personal appeals. Major corporations like WalMart and Citigroup are taking up the cause. And former Clinton administration officials have landed lucrative lobbying contracts.
To help make its case, Colombia had already hired at least three firms on Capitol Hill, in addition to the work by Mr. Penn's firm, Burson-Marsteller, paying out from $15,000 to $40,000 a month. Collectively the Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to firms that have negotiated or lobbied on behalf of the deal.
They include the Glover Park Group, the fast-growing firm set up by former Clinton White House aides including Joe Lockhart, who was chief spokesman for the president. (Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton's campaign communications director, was a partner at the firm but has taken a leave of absence.)
The firm has approached more than a dozen members of Congress, focusing on moderate Democrats who the lobbyists believe might be persuaded to disregard their party leaders and vote in favor of the deal.
Lobbyists at Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart -- whose partners include another former aide in the Clinton White House, Bill Danvers -- have separately met with pro-business Democrats like Representative Joseph Crowley of New York. And Andrew Samet, a deputy secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, has been hired under yet another lobbying contract.
A long list of former Clinton administration aides, including Mack McLarty, the former counsel to the president; Donna E. Shalala, the health and human services secretary; and Leon E. Panetta, the onetime chief of staff, also have come out in support of the deal. It puts them in alliance with Mr. Bush and Republican leaders.
I hope this kind of bi-partisanship is not what Sen. Obama has in mind.
The second editorial is a straightforward plea to approve the Colombia deal--and it is bizarre beyond belief. You can read what the editorial argues and compare some facts here and here about the great strides made against death squads in Colombia and the economic impact the deal will have.
The Washington Post, of course, weighed in with its pimping for the deal, as part of an editorial praising "truth telling". Here is the attack against Sen. Obama:
Mr. Obama committed a particularly egregious libel last week when he said, referring to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who has taken on the violent left and the violent right at considerable risk to himself, "You've got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition."
Anyway, I could go on. This is what we will be exposed to in the coming days. The only good news is this, from Congressional Quarterly:
As lawmakers dig in for a heated battle over a free-trade agreement with Colombia, President Bush is likely to face his first defeat on a bilateral trade pact unless Democratic sentiment shifts significantly.
But, the elites will work hard. Overtime. Because a lot of money is at stake. So, no time to rest.