What did Bill Clinton think he was doing in Seattle last week? He invites leaders from all over the world to a new round of talks on lowering trade barriers. They find themselves besieged by anti-trade demonstrators: environmentalists, protectionists, anarchists, lunatics. The president-host then shows up--and makes the demonstrators' case!
Startling his own negotiators (and pleasing Big Labor), Clinton goes way beyond the official U.S. position about tacking environmental and labor standards onto tariff talks. He declares publicly that he favors imposing sanctions on countries that violate such standards.
This astonishing expansion--and subversion--of what were supposed to be negotiations about reducing tariffs terrified the delegates. India and Indonesia and Egypt understand what the rich countries' newfound concern for the working conditions of their poor-country competitors is all about.
It is a transparent form of protectionism. It is a way to ensure that countries in the early stages of industrialization are deprived of their one tool for competing economically: lower wages.
Sure, the working conditions in these developing countries are awful. But not compared with the feudal alternative these former peasants face if they lose their factory jobs. And not compared with conditions at a comparable period in the West's industrialization 150 years ago.
It took us decades to raise wages and working conditions to what they are today. Trying to mandate them on countries just emerging from feudalism is a simple and obvious way to shut them out of the world economy.
So what is Clinton doing? Grandstanding, yes. Preening, yes. Proving that the lame duck is still relevant, yes. But above all, Clinton is running.
Running? Does not the 22nd Amendment stop him from running? No. It stops him from serving. Nothing can stop this man from running. Campaigning is the one constant in his life, the one thing for which he has both an addiction and a talent. He has decided to turn the election of Al Gore into a referendum on his own tenure.
Seattle was a way for Clinton to prove his bona fides with labor, which has been very cross with him and Al about trade. Gore desperately needs labor's support to win the presidency. Remember: Gore is the guy who destroyed Ross Perot in the great Larry King NAFTA debate six years ago.
Now, normal second-term presidents welcome their final release from the tyranny of electoral politics. They welcome the unique, short-lived opportunity to eschew short-term goals, transcend partisan politics and act solely in the national interest.
What does Clinton do? He uses the last year of his last term for yet more politics. In 1992 Democratic challenger Paul Tsongas called him "pander bear." Seven years in office have changed him not one bit.
History will judge him harshly for this. Arguably, the Clinton presidency has had two successes: the budget, Clinton's policies helping to bring it into surplus for the first time in 30 years; and free trade, Clinton completing the work that his predecessors had begun on NAFTA and GATT.
Both successes are now threatened, however. The baby-boomer retirement casts a pall on the future solvency of Social Security. And protectionism is on the rise. After all, if in times of plenty there is this much opposition to free trade--not just in Seattle but in Congress, where fast-track authority was rejected--what will happen to free trade when there is a downturn?
So what does Clinton do to shore up these successes and leave a legacy? Does he initiate real Social Security reform? Does he stand up and say we may have to raise the retirement age or restructure benefits, perhaps even reducing them for the wealthy?
Nothing of the kind. Instead of running interference for politicians of both parties to allow them to talk realistically about Social Security, he uses it cynically as a bludgeon in budget negotiations. He makes a slogan of saving the Social Security surplus, then actually spends some of it (as he has for the first seven years of his presidency).
And on trade? He pulls his stunt in Seattle. Not only does he scuttle prospects for further tariff reductions in areas that would greatly benefit the United States (agriculture, services and intellectual property). He so unsettles other countries' view of America as a supposed free trader as to actually jeopardize the advances both he and his predecessors made in the past.
Clinton's legacy is taking shape. He'll be remembered as the president who, whenever faced with the choice of the grand or the small, the deep or the shallow, instinctively chose the path of expedience. To the very end, it was always politics over history.