By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
For a moment last week, it was as if Newt Gingrich and impeachment and the whole damn Republican revolution had never come along.
Since November 1994, the Democrats have marched in unaccustomed lock step, Clinton alongside Gephardt, New Democrat alongside Old, suppressing their differences in a common effort to beat back the Republicans’ war on the state. The Dems had their differences on welfare reform and some other issues, of course, but the yowling appearance of the Gingrichites at the gates united them as they had never been during the Carter, Reagan or Bush presidencies — or during Bill Clinton’s first two years, either.
Then the Republicans banished Gingrich, locked Trent Lott and Dick Armey in the attic, and ceased proposing any major legislation at all. With last week’s China deal, House Democrats found themselves voting on a measure of great moment that had actually originated with their very own president.
And, free at last to be Democrats, they instantly revived the civil wars that had divided them for years.
Bill Clinton got his bill authorizing permanent trade status for China through the House last week, but over the opposition of the clear majority of his Democratic colleagues. Seventy-three House Democrats approved China’s new trade status, while 138 opposed it. That is, only 35 percent of House Democrats went along with the idea that China deserves an unassailable place in the world economy in return for its agreeing to protect our investments (albeit at the continuing expense of its own workers and environment). It took the overwhelming support of the House Republicans, who endorsed by measure by a margin of 164-to-57, to enact the resolution.
Of course, if you listened to the free-trade punditocracy, that 35 percent Democratic support represents a steadily expanding beachhead of modernity and internationalism in what had been a doddering old party. According to Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Clinton has “taken a party that was essentially protectionist when he came in, and on a series of votes has taken it more deeply into the international community.”
Except, the China deal got even less support from House Democrats than NAFTA had in 1993. In that year, 39 percent of House Democrats voted for a trade pact — protecting corporate investment but not workers’ rights or environmental safeguards — with Mexico. You could argue, I suppose, that since Americans certainly feel more secure about their jobs today than they did in 1993, the Democrats’ support for the China measure should have exceeded, rather than lagged behind their support for NAFTA. Or you could argue that since China is widely recognized as among the most repressive regimes on the planet, the Democrats’ support for this measure should have trailed behind a trade deal with merely authoritarian Mexico.
In fact, the most striking thing about the politics of trade at both ends of the ’90s is how little the fundamental alignments have changed at all. Of course, business supported both NAFTA and the China deal, and labor opposed them. What’s remarkable is that public sentiment on these deals and on free trade generally hasn’t changed, either. The final pre-NAFTA polls of 1993 showed the public opposing the deal by a 41-percent-to-37-percent margin; while the final Wall Street Journal/NBC poll before the China vote showed that Americans were convinced that foreign trade hurts their countrymen more than it helps them by a 34-percent-to-48-percent margin. (Polls on trade are among the very few that the generally poll-crazy media tend to downplay. On the free-trade question, as on little else, popular opposition simply isn’t a major story — or wasn’t until protesters shut down Seattle.)
The thing that’s changed least about the politics of trade, however, is the way it divides the Democrats. In 2000 as in 1993, a little under two-thirds of House Democrats opposed the administration’s initiative. And in 2000 as in 1993, Bill Clinton pushed that initiative despite the damage it would inflict on his party in the next election.
You probably missed it, but the best episode of political theater in the run-up to last week’s China vote was the televised presidential address that never was. About a week before the vote, the White House let it be known that it was sounding out the networks on the prospect of Clinton’s addressing the nation on the historic opportunity that the China deal afforded. The following day, various sources on Capitol Hill and at the AFL-CIO let it be known that if Clinton did indeed ask the networks for time, a request for rebuttal time would be lodged by House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt. With that, no more was heard from the White House about a Clinton speech.
But what was Gephardt supposed to do? The more Clinton pushed the China vote, the more difficult it would be for Gephardt’s Democrats to recapture the House (where they’re only six votes short of a majority) this November. Indeed, the more difficult it would be for Al Gore to win the White House as well. The president’s concern for the verdict of posterity was all well and good — assuming, as Clinton apparently did, that posterity was a free trader — but the president was seeking it at the expense of his party’s prospects this year.