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On the 'Fast Track' to Nowhere

By Robert L. Borosage
Sunday, September 21, 1997; Page C01

In recent weeks Bill Clinton has dithered over an implicit choice: Will he be a modern-day Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican who forged a bipartisan coalition for progressive reform at the beginning of this century? Or will he be remembered as another Grover Cleveland, the long-forgotten Gilded-Age Democrat who dedicated himself to assuring business that there was no difference between the two parties?

For Clinton, the legislative debate known in Washington jargon as "fast track" poses a fundamental choice of national leadership. Last week, the president submitted legislation to Congress that would empower him to negotiate trade agreements that the Congress must vote up or down without amendment. The administration wants fast track authority primarily to bring Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – which links the United States, Mexico and Canada. The ultimate goal is to establish a free trade area throughout the Americas.

The stakes are much larger than the specifics. The fierce congressional debate that kicked off last week is the beginning of a historic contest over who will write the rules of the new global economy.

The president understands this. In 1992, candidate Clinton staked out a progressive, popular position on the trade issue. He excoriated President Bush for not taking the steps needed to "harness the global economy to the benefit of all of our people." In defining his foreign policy vision in a 1993 address at American University, the newly elected president emphasized that "regional and bilateral agreements provide opportunities to explore new kinds of trade concerns." NAFTA, he argued, should ensure that "the environment, that living standards, that working conditions are honored."

But Clinton soon retreated in the face of Republican opposition. In campaigning for congressional passage of NAFTA in 1993, he relegated labor and environmental concerns to unenforceable agreements and did little to promote them.

Four years later, Clinton has once again acceded to the Republican party leadership that adamantly rejects the notion of building social protections into trade treaties. Indeed, Clinton's proposal incorporates the clever "compromise" language offered by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) that uses the rhetoric of protecting workers to restrict the president's authority to negotiate labor and environmental provisions. In doing so, the president aligns himself with the Business Roundtable, virtually all big-ticket campaign donors and a chorus of editorialists, commentators and economists and against the majority sentiments of his own party and the majority of the American people.

Advocates of fast track authority repeat the mantras of "free trade" and "leadership." Will "other countries continue to look to the United States to lead," as Clinton declared earlier this month, or watch as we become "withdrawn from the world"?

But it is precisely leadership that the president's critics are demanding. In contrast to the 1993 NAFTA debate, the opposition today is not led by demagogic populists like Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan but by progressives like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

"The question," says Sweeney, "is not whether America must lead, but where we must lead. It is not whether we are internationalist, but what values our internationalism serves."

Proponents of labor rights and environmental protections argue that the United States must take the lead in the historic effort to establish fair rules for the global economy, rules that protect people as well as property.

Clinton's suggestion that opponents are isolationist is just a rehash of free-trade rhetoric that is now obsolete. No one disputes that the global economy now exists.

The information revolution has generated a growing global market, dominated by a relative handful of corporate behemoths. Export-Import Bank officials estimate that fully one-fourth of U.S. manufacturing exports are accounted for by 15 corporations with household names such as General Electric, General Motors and Boeing Corp. These companies have been shedding American jobs as they restructure for global production and distribution.

This reality transforms the trade debate from even 1992-93. The issue is no longer about free trade versus protectionism. Trade negotiations no longer focus on cutting tariffs; rather, they focus on organizing the global market.

Corporations want to use regional accords to test new protections for capital investment, copyright and other business prerogatives. Supporters of environmental and labor rights clauses argue that it is time to test how to use trade sanctions to bolster labor rights, as well as copyrights.

President Clinton often likens the historical moment to the progressive era at the beginning of the century, and with good reason. The Industrial Revolution produced a national market dominated by great corporate trusts. Popular protest grew against what Roosevelt called the "malefactors of great wealth." A populist movement challenged laissez-faire complacency. Muckrakers exposed grotesque working conditions and corporate abuses. Progressives, led by Roosevelt, forged a bipartisan coalition to put boundaries around the market. Against fierce resistance of the most purblind corporations, and with the support of the more enlightened who understood the benefits of regulation, Progressives fought for antitrust laws, food and drug regulation, child-labor bans, a minimum wage and a progressive income tax. Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" laid the groundwork for 20th-century economic reforms and the creation of the great American middle class.

Popular movements are once again challenging the business agenda. Muckrakers are exposing sweatshop conditions from El Monte, Calif., where young women were locked behind barbed-wire fences while sewing garments for leading U.S. department stores, to Xian, China, where machinists make $40 a month making parts for Boeing airplanes. Human-rights activists are organizing boycotts against goods produced with child labor. Workers in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have staged demonstrations and walkouts to protest starvation wages, hazardous working conditions and arbitrary layoffs. This year, striking public workers in France and UPS workers in the United States won widespread public support.

The implicit global agenda of "the new internationalism," as Sweeney has dubbed it, resembles the domestic agenda of Roosevelt's new nationalism 95 years ago. Just as Roosevelt's foes blasted his program as unworkable, unnecessary and un-American, so fast track proponents caricature the demand for labor rights and environmental protections as an attempt to impose American values on foreign cultures or foist a U.S.-level minimum wage on developing countries that cannot afford it.

But labor rights – the right to organize, bargain collectively, strike – are not simply American values; they are enshrined in international covenants signed by virtually every nation, and they are fought for by workers around the world. Reformers are not demanding that countries enforce the U.S. minimum wage, but a minimum wage adequate to the country. The point is to put the weight of the U.S. government on the side of those trying to put civilized limits on the competition for capital and to empower workers to gain their fair share of the rewards of global growth.

At the height of his popularity, the president could choose to unite the Democratic party with Republican moderates into a vital center for reform. But to date the president has chosen to challenge the likes of General Electric CEO Jack Welch on the golf course rather than confront him or his fellow executives in the political arena. He has shown little of Roosevelt's willingness to indict "corporate arrogance," to rally the country against the "power of the mighty industrial overlords." He has been more a Cleveland who, while running for president in 1884, reassured worried industrialists that "the transfer of executive control from one party to another does not mean any serious disturbance of existing conditions."

Clinton is now seeking to have it both ways: reassuring his Republican and business allies while offering token concessions to his own party and most loyal supporters. The White House added more language on labor rights and environmental protection to the text of the proposal he submitted last week. The president pledges to promote labor rights at the World Trade Organization. He will offer a bigger, better package on trade-adjustment assistance for families and communities that are displaced by trade. He will escalate his "fair trade rhetoric." But in the end, as one aide told the New York Times, "we guarantee nothing other than to talk about these issues."

Clinton's failure to use the bully pulpit to forge a reform coalition at home forfeits any chance of leadership on these issues abroad. That is why the debate about fast track promises to be so fierce. If opponents can defeat the president's proposal, they may force him finally to don the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt rather than spurn it.

Robert Borosage is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future and contributing editor of the Nation magazine.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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