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Fast Track: The Fiasco . . .

By David S. Broder
Sunday, November 16, 1997; Page C07


So much went wrong in the White House handling of the "fast track" trade issue that the one thing President Clinton did that was both difficult and right has not received sufficient attention. He was offered a chance to pick up additional Republican votes and avert his most costly legislative defeat in four years. But the price was his acceptance of new restrictions on U.S. funds for international family planning programs, and he said no.

The beneficiaries of this decision can be counted in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions. But they are mainly poor women in foreign lands of no great strategic interest to the United States – hardly an influential constituency. Those who care deeply about this issue in the United States are few, but fortunately Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of them. So there will be more clinics in more villages helping families have the number of children they want and can raise to healthy adulthood.

But that is about all that can be said positively about the fiasco on Capitol Hill that forced Clinton to ask for an indefinite postponement of a House vote he was certain to lose. Thus he remains without the authority every other recent president has had to negotiate trade agreements that go to Congress for up-or-down votes without amendments.

Clinton says he thinks he can find the missing votes next year – and he may be right. Some Democrats may be more willing to vote yes after the candidate filing deadlines have passed and they can see no strong opponents in the primary or general election. But Republicans – who still will have to provide at least three-quarters of the votes – will be even less inclined to rescue Clinton in an election year than they have been up to now.

The fast-track failure undercuts Clinton's claim that his historical mission is to lead the nation – and the Democratic Party – through the great transition into the global economy and the information age. Four years ago, 40 percent of House Democrats supported him on the first big trade agreement of his term, NAFTA. After four years of economic growth and four years of Clinton rhetoric, barely 20 percent of House Democrats were prepared to vote for fast track. So much for his powers of persuasion.

It is true, as Clinton points out, that senators and governors – representing more diverse constituencies – are far more supportive of his trade policy. But representatives also speak for their people, and Clinton has failed to make the case to them or their constituents that liberal trade is good for everyone's economic health.

This is not just union political and lobbying clout. As Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that tried to help Clinton pass fast track, conceded, "the public is very ambivalent" about the costs and benefits of globalization. Charlene Barshefsky, the gutsy woman who heads the U.S. trade office, told me, "All the statistics in the world about export-related jobs don't offset one picture of a closed factory whose loss is blamed on foreign competition."

The White House was much too dismissive of those who said the effects of globalization on American society need closer examination and much fuller debate. An article by Alan Tonelson in the November issue of Current History makes a strong case that "precisely because its effects are distributed in such a wildly uneven, frequently shifting manner, globalization raises serious questions about America's future as a cohesive, successful society – about American nationhood itself."

Tonelson is on the staff of a think tank funded by the United States Business and Industrial Council, an organization long opposed to liberal trade measures and an opponent of fast track. But his contention that the consequences of this great transformation are worthy of far more serious consideration than they have received cannot be dismissed as special pleading.

Nor can the president ignore the powerful speech that Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts made on the House floor, explaining why he and other liberals "will not agree to a continuation of public policies in this country and elsewhere which exalt the mobility of capital and do nothing to provide some offset for the inequality that is exacerbated thereby."

The president has a period of more than two months now – before the 1998 session of Congress begins – to try to rescue the trade policy on which so much of his future, and the country's and the world's well-being, depends. The wrong way to do it is to try to cut a few more deals with a few more Democrats. The right way is to engage the country in serious discussion of globalization and its effects. He needs to lead – not connive.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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