Clinton's Wedge

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.

Worse yet, Clinton had already sacrificed the Democrats on the altar of free trade once before. In 1994, infuriated by the administration’s successful campaign for NAFTA, normally Democratic voters in industrial states — and industrial unions — stayed away from the polls, contributing to the Republicans’ sweep of Congress. Now, just as the Democrats were poised to win Congress back, Clinton was doing it again. The leading trade-impacted unions — the Steelworkers, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW) — were all vowing not to help any Democrats who voted with business. And even if the China deal assumed disproportionate significance only with these unions, and with the fair-trade and environmental activists on campuses — well, neither Gephardt nor Gore was in any position to pass up those votes.

In short, the president who once blunted such classic Republican wedge issues as crime and welfare has now driven a wedge of his own making right through his own party. As AFL-CIO president John Sweeney pointed out the day following the vote, Democrats are generally united on such issues as social security and health care, but the president had put the spotlight on the one issue where even a semblance of unity eluded them. “I am deeply angry,” Sweeney said, “that the president [whom] working families elected chose to divide progressive elected officials and their core constituencies . . .”

At Solidarity House, the Auto Workers’ Detroit headquarters, UAW president Steve Yokich was even angrier than Sweeney. The UAW and the Teamsters are the only two major AFL-CIO unions to have not yet endorsed Al Gore; they were angry about his support for the administration’s free-trade policies before the vote, and they are angrier now. “Vice President Gore is holding hands with the profiteers of the world and singing the praises of the U.S.-China WTO accession,” Yokich said in a statement released on the day before the vote. “That’s why we have no choice but to actively explore alternatives to the two major political parties. It’s time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates.” A spokesperson for Teamsters president James P. Hoffa allowed as how the Teamsters, too, might do some shopping in the third-party aisle.

Shopping, of course, is not buying, and even if Yokich opts to go for Nader, there’s no guarantee he can bring along the UAW executive board. The trajectory of Teamsters politics is even less predictable than the UAW’s: Unlike other unions arrayed against the China deal, the Teamsters have rallied not just with Nader but with Pat Buchanan as well.

“I always thought the DLC would generate its own Ken Livingston, and Nader may be it,” Bill Carrick, one of the nation’s foremost Democratic consultants, told me last week — referring to the militant socialist mayor of London whom voters elected earlier this month in an act of undisguised rebellion against the rightward drift of Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The DLC’s sense has always been, we need to lose some constituencies in order to win over the middle. Now, this may come back to haunt them.”

Outside the UAW and the Teamsters, labor leaders may be furious at Clinton, but are resolute in their support for Gore — for reasons, ultimately, that don’t have a lot to do with Gore at all. Both George W. Bush and GOP congressional leaders have made clear that their primary strategic political goal, should Bush take the White House, will be to bust the political power of unions — which, since John Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995, have become the Republicans’ most potent antagonists. “What this endorsement is about,” one former AFL-CIO official explained to me shortly after the Federation backed Gore last October, “is, ‘We’re in a world of shit if Bush wins.’”

Now, however, Gore faces the daunting prospect that he may have to campaign in Michigan without the support of the UAW. But even if he gets a halfhearted UAW endorsement, the cost that the China fight will extract from the Gore campaign in volunteers and enthusiasm throughout the industrial Midwest could still be high. Virtually every analysis of the November vote suggests that the presidential election will be decided in the region that runs from Jersey City to Kansas City, in seven swing states of the old industrial heartland: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin. A look at the way the Democratic House members from these seven states voted last week on China suggests the depth of Gore’s dilemma. Whether because the pressure from the industrial unions in these states was particularly intense, or because public sentiment against the deal was particularly intense — or both — only four Democrats out of the 56 from these states voted for the China deal. Fifty-two Democrats voted against it — a ratio of 13-to-1 among the Democrats from the states that the vice president needs most. If Clinton’s wedge speared anyone, it seems to have been Al Gore.


Finally, a number of centrist commentators — from The New York Times’ Tom Friedman to the almost invariably thoughtful Matt Miller — have expressed exasperation with unions for continuing to fight this rear-guard action, and have proposed instead a kind of grand political deal. Globalization is here, they say. Give up this opposition to one trade treaty after another. Sit down with business and work out an understanding to enhance your position here at home. Concentrate instead on winning legislation guaranteeing better training and education here, on establishing a higher minimum wage or a living wage, on securing universal health insurance and shoring up social security.

The problem here is that these are precisely the programs that unions have been championing, and business has been opposing, for years. Do Friedman, Miller et al. really think that small-business lobbies will kick in for a living wage if the UAW agrees to more trade deals? (The enlightened burghers of Santa Monica seem perfectly content to spend all of eternity in hell just to defeat an extension of the living wage.) The Republican Party of George W. Bush wants to privatize the risk of investing for one’s retirement. In the early ’90s, the business-oriented DLC opposed a hike in the minimum wage; in the year 2000, a number of business-oriented congressional New Democrats oppose their party leaders’ proposal to make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors. And the one proposal for which labor might in theory be willing to swap some of its trade positions — a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions without fear of retaliation — has failed to win the support of a single business leader during the 20-plus years it’s been kicking around. In short, the forces that promote laissez faire abroad also promote it at home.

Time was when the Democratic Party itself was the vehicle where business and labor worked out their compromises — but that time passed around 25 years ago. The New Deal Order, in which growth was more or less equitable and unions coexisted with regulated industries, has given way to a globalized economy where growth, and contractions, are explosive and utterly inequitable. There isn’t even a table that business and labor could repair to if they wanted to — some agency of global government that could make a social compact into a binding reality. And the clash between business and labor within the Democratic Party — a clash that was largely in abeyance so long as the Newtsters were gnawing at the very foundations of civilization — clearly has not gone away. That is one meaning of last week’s China vote.

But there’s another meaning, too, which suggests that there’s nothing remotely rear-guard about the unions’ opposition to the deal that Congress enacted. If we compare the debate on this proposal to the 1993 debate on NAFTA, it’s clear that the terms of debate have shifted in the direction of the unions. Suddenly, free trade is no longer an end in itself. Instead, it has become a given that the emerging global economy should promote human rights and worker rights and environmental standards. The deal’s proponents argued that increasing the presence of American business and dollars in China would somehow make all that come to pass — a refutable presumption, but one that raises the bar for future trade deals.

If labor really were arguing for protectionism, this sea change in the terms of discussion would never have occurred. In fact, from the 1997 fight against fast-track to the battle in Seattle last November, to the A-16 demonstrations in Washington this April, to the China vote last week, America’s presumably protectionist unions have made the case for globalizing the New Deal Order. Which, in a better world, would unify the Democrats like nothing since Newt Gingrich.

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