President Clinton, realizing he can add only a few more planks to his legacy before leaving the White House, has seized on robust trade as one of a handful of unfinished priorities to press aggressively in his final year in office.
With a major international trade meeting scheduled in Seattle at the end of the month, the president has amplified his message in recent days, including at his stop today at a Harley-Davidson motorcycle assembly plant here that counts on exports for nearly a quarter of it sales. His audience of unionized workers was appropriate to his mission, because Clinton says his biggest challenge is not to convince Republicans of his view, but to sway traditional Democrats, many of whom associate open trade with the loss of U.S. jobs.
"There is a new Democratic majority, a big one, for almost every other issue on how to manage the economy, the importance of paying off the debt, what our education policy ought to be," Clinton said earlier this week in an electronic-mail "town hall chat." "We don't have, in my judgment, the right consensus on trade yet, but we're moving in the right direction."
Today, Clinton's backdrop was a motorcycle plant renowned for good labor-management relations and a work force that's sold on the notion that U.S. employees gain more than they lose when nations open their borders to trade.
"We can have more success stories like yours," he said. To do so, "we have to find a way to expand trade. . . . But if we can't convince people like you that we're right about this trade issue, then we are going to shrink America's future prospects."
He repeated his trade mantra: The United States has 4 percent of the world's population, and 22 percent of its income, so "we've got to sell something to the other 96 percent. . . . But we will never be able to do it unless working people believe that trade benefits ordinary American families."
Clinton is hammering this message at events such as today's "National Dialogue on Jobs and Trade," which featured administration officials, labor leaders and corporate executives in several other locations throughout the nation.
Traditionally, unfettered trade is associated with moderate Republicans, the political affiliation of many corporation owners and executives. Labor unions, a historically Democratic constituency, often have been leery of free trade because it opens the way for sales of foreign products in the United States, forcing workers here to compete with overseas workers who have lower wages, less stringent workplace safety standards and weaker environmental protections.
Starting with centrist groups, such as the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton in recent months has built an argument that open trade is both good policy and good politics for Democrats--if workers will only open their eyes to trade's benefits, as the Harley employees have done. Right now, he argues, the debate about open trade focuses too narrowly on the potential for imports into the United States rather than the potential for sales of U.S. products overseas. At a DLC dinner last month, he called vigorous trade the "one last big hump" Democrats must cross in order to contend "we have a whole vision for the future."
Critics, including some labor, consumer and environmental groups, say it's ironic that Clinton visited the Harley plant today. In the mid-1980s, the Japanese government subsidized its country's motorcycles so they could be sold--or "dumped"--in the United States and elsewhere at prices U.S. makers couldn't match. The Reagan administration won a ruling from the U.S. International Trade Commission that allowed it to slap a 45 percent tariff on Japanese motorcycles for a few years, enabling Harley-Davidson to recapture its market and stay in business.
Clinton said today that Harley deserved the protection at the time. But critics say such actions won't be possible if the president and others prevail in pressing for lower trade barriers through the WTO.
"Harley-Davidson wouldn't be around if the Clinton trade policies had been in effect" in the 1980s, said Scott Nova, director of Citizens Trade Campaign. "The administration boasts about increased exports," he said, "but never mentions the far greater growth in job-destroying imports."
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, agreed. Under Clinton, she said, "we have the largest trade deficit in history. Our top categories of job growth are cashiers, retail clerks and waiters and waitresses." Many Americans are "no longer willing to take that version of globalization."
Clinton said he welcomes a vigorous debate in Seattle. "I'm glad the demonstrators are coming," he said. "I want us to try to find a way to build a consensus where we can expand trade and respect the rights of labor and the environment."
Commerce Secretary William Daley, who accompanied Clinton to York, said in an interview that Clinton is determined to press the trade issue even though he realizes he probably can't get Congress to reverse its 1997 decision denying him "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements with less congressional interference.
"He is frustrated obviously at the setback of not getting fast track," Daley said. "But he's not going to walk away from it."
CAPTION: President Clinton points to a "Fat Boy" Harley-Davidson while touring the company's York, Pa. plant with, from left, Willie G. Davidson, grandson of the founder, General Manager Bill Dannehl and CEO Jeffrey Bleustein.