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Why the Democrats Bolted

By E. J. Dionne, Jr.
Friday, November 14, 1997; Page A27

President Clinton's defeat on the trade bill this week was the most important political event since the president's reelection. The roots of the setback lie in the balanced budget deal reached earlier this year, in the White House's utter misunderstanding of what House Democrats were trying to say and in a misreading of public opinion on trade.

Yes, the failure of the fast-track bill was a big victory for the labor movement. But to write this off as nothing but a display of union muscle is to miss the real reasons for labor's victory (and also to ignore the role played by environmentalists and others). It also overlooks the opportunity that now exists to bring equity to the new economy.

Clinton's defeat is important because it marks the end of a period when House Democrats were willing to go along with his strategy of bowing to the Republican leadership in Congress.

Earlier this year, many Democrats voted for a balanced budget deal they disliked because they shared Clinton's political judgment that the public strongly supported an end to the deficit. To be on the right side of that issue, many doubters reasoned, was worth backing a bill whose tax and budget cuts they opposed.

But on trade, public opinion was at best ambivalent and at worst skeptical. Sure, you can find polls that show support for open trade and American engagement in the global market. Yet those same polls report deep anxiety about companies moving jobs abroad. Just this week, Fruit of the Loom announced the transfer of 2,900 more jobs to Mexico, effectively completing its shift of jobs out of the country. When Democrats bucked Clinton this time, they felt they were voting the popular will of their districts.

The proof? Fast track was defeated not by longtime union supporters and protectionists. On their own, they lacked the votes to overcome Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The defections that killed the deal were from moderate "New Democrats" and free-traders.

"People see it as a litmus test on whether you are sympathetic with how precarious their job stability might be," Rep. Timothy J. Roemer, a staunch New Democrat from Indiana, told The Post's Tom Edsall and John Yang. "We have low unemployment in Indiana, but thousands of people are hanging on by their fingernails to $6 and $7 an hour jobs, and they could be the first ones displaced."

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the shrewdest analysts of sentiment among House Democrats, says that even plausible arguments about trade's positive effect on living standards ring hollow to workers who have heard employers threaten moves to Mexico or elsewhere as a way of holding down wage demands. "The most chilling words any working person hears is, `Hey, I can move this company,' " Frank says.

The link between this vote and the budget deal rested on the belief of many Democrats that Clinton's concessions on taxes and spending eviscerated his power to create the "social compact" he keeps promising for those displaced by economic change. "He signed a budget deal that deprived him of the resources to create the social compact," Frank said.

Frank compares the stance of House Democrats to "a strike." He explains: "We're in a bargaining situation. . . . We're willing to hold globalization hostage to equity." If business and the administration want more open trade, says Frank, the socially responsible (and politically necessary) trade-off is to offer real help to those who, with reason, fear it most – families in vulnerable economic situations.

Frank is the first to say that the defeat of fast track is not a policy and that global markets are the wave of the future. The task of labor and House Democrats is to put together a plausible package of policies (on health care, education, unemployment protections) that provide a buffer for those hurt by economic transformation.

Democrats should have learned from this month's elections that they lack a compelling alternative to the standard Republican mantra of tax cuts, tax cuts and more tax cuts. Faced with nothing or tax cuts, voters usually choose tax cuts.

By embracing open trade linked with real social protections, Clinton could give himself a cause and the legacy he keeps ruminating about. He would give Americans something to chew on: not protectionism vs. free trade but free trade with equity vs. free trade without rules. If Clinton walks away from this challenge, he will only give solace to those now pronouncing him the lamest of lame ducks.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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