Fraying Free-Trade Coalition

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, May 13, 2005

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, chairwoman of the House's 42-member New Democrat Coalition, coins aphorisms at the rate of about one per minute.

On the difference between how Republicans and Democrats deal with legislative adversity: "When Republicans take tough votes, they circle the wagons. When Democrats take tough votes, we circle the firing squad."

On the tendency of the House Republican leadership to hide legislative surprises in obscure provisions of sprawling bills: "You always have to look for the olive pit in the jelly doughnut. You know there's something bad in there."

On the Republican Party's tendency to ignore moderate Democrats: "We're the ones they don't call, don't write and don't send flowers to."

But flowers may soon start appearing in abundance on the moderates' doorsteps. The Bush administration was certainly paying attention earlier this month when Tauscher and three other leaders of her centrist and normally pro-trade group came out against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA.

Trade agreements can't pass without significant help from Democratic moderates. California's Tauscher notes that she "took a lot of tough votes" on behalf of free trade in the past. Her defection is a signal of a large shift in the nation's debate over trade, and a symptom of how Washington's new partisanship is breaking up old alliances that once seemed so durable.

Nothing has been the same since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. NAFTA represented the high point of a bipartisan alliance on trade that brought President Bill Clinton together with Republican House Leader Newt Gingrich. It was a moment of optimism about the prospects of the global economy, and the apogee of Clinton's New Democrat argument that the United States could compete and win in the world economy, provided its workers were given the "tools" -- mostly job training and education -- to be competitive.

It was a lovely synthesis, and to a large degree it worked. Spurred by new technologies, the American economy took off in the 1990s. By the final Clinton years, even workers stuck at the bottom were starting to experience higher wages and living standards.

It's not the '90s anymore, though, and the trade coalition's happy days are over. Since the end of the Clinton-era boom, the costs of trade, in the form of lost manufacturing jobs, have become more important to many voters than the benefits.

It's not that the country is about to move to protectionism, despite talk of a tougher stance toward China. NAFTA is not about to be repealed. But a giddiness about global trade has been replaced by a grumpy skepticism over whether wages and living standards are rising as fast as profits. "The economy has changed a great deal in the last 10 years," says Rep. Adam Smith, a New Democrat from Washington state who, like Tauscher, voted to give Bush trade promotion authority but, also like Tauscher, is opposing CAFTA.

"There has always been a certain attitude among some economists and trade advocates that the issue is simply trade: Reduce the barriers and move forward," Smith says. "What we've discovered in the last 10 or 15 years is that, yes, that's a part of it, but if you want to reduce poverty and move people to the middle class, you need more than that. You need an emphasis on workers' rights. A balance must be struck between the short-term needs of business and the needs of workers."

Tauscher argues that "a safety net is just not there for people who are without a job or without skills in an increasingly difficult environment."

This is, in a sense, not so much a battle against Clinton's grand trade vision as it is a protest against the failure to realize that vision. The promises of training, education and uplift for those hurt in the globalization process have not been met. CAFTA is caught in a cross fire of disappointment. It is thus, says Smith, "as good a place as any to say that these changes need to happen."

CAFTA's troubles are a warning to free-traders that, absent more attention to the interests of the displaced, the already fraying free-trade consensus could fall apart. They are also a sign of the impatience of moderates with the inclination of Republican congressional leaders, especially in the House, to freeze out the Democrats from any influence on legislation. "It forces us further to the left because we are without anything to vote for," Tauscher says. "It prevents us from working in a bipartisan way to achieve any compromise."

In other words: no calls, no letters, no flowers, no worker rights, no CAFTA.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company