Running away from free trade
IF YOU HAD only the rhetoric of this year's Democratic presidential candidates to go by, you would never guess that the most successful Democratic politician of our time was an advocate of free trade and a champion of NAFTA, the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement that merged the United States, Canada, and Mexico into a single common market.
"The only way we can pass on the American Dream of the last 40 years to our children" is to adapt to the "winds of global competition" that have transformed the world's economy, President Bill Clinton said at the NAFTA signing ceremony on Sept. 14, 1993. He described the struggle over NAFTA as "a debate about whether we will embrace these changes and create the jobs of tomorrow or try to resist these changes, hoping we can preserve the economic structures of yesterday."
Preceding Clinton at the dais that day was Vice President Al Gore, who noted that among the many dignitaries in attendance were three former presidents -- Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republicans Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
"There are some issues that transcend ideology," Gore declared. "The view is so uniform that it unites people in both parties. . . . NAFTA is such an issue."
That statement would have gotten no argument from another of the notables on hand for the signing: Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. "I was a very strong supporter of NAFTA," Dean recalled in 1995. NAFTA is "a good policy," he said. "I believe it's going to create jobs in the United States of America, and to let our trading partner go down the tubes . . . would be a big mistake."
Yet to hear Dean now, you would think his support of NAFTA had been grudging at best and that robust free trade was a policy no mainstream Democrat could endorse. When an intervewer recently began a question by noting that Dean had been "a strong supporter of NAFTA," the former governor bit his head off: "Where do you get this `I'm a strong supporter of NAFTA?' I never did anything about it. I didn't vote on it. I didn't march down the street demanding NAFTA. I simply wrote a letter supporting NAFTA."
During the Democrats' debate in Iowa this week, Dean's comments on NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, a linchpin of international free trade, were even harsher.
"I believe that NAFTA and the WTO only globalized the rights of multinational corporations. . . . They are not going to globalize human rights, environmental rights, the right to organize. That needs to happen. And if it doesn't happen, NAFTA and the WTO simply aren't going to work."
Aren't going to work? By any reasonable measure, NAFTA and the free trade policy of which it is a bulwark have been a triumph. Since 1993, US-Mexico trade has tripled, to more than $230 billion a year. Canada and Mexico are now America's two largest trading partners, far ahead of Japan. That "giant sucking sound" of lost jobs and manufacturing facilities that NAFTA was supposed to engender never materialized. Millions of new US jobs were created after NAFTA took effect -- a fact Democrats should be eager to trumpet, since nearly all those jobs were created on Clinton's watch.
Yet the Democrats running for president, with the exception of Senator Joe Lieberman, are vying to outdo each other in denouncing the instruments of free trade that help make such gains possible. In the Iowa debate, congressman Richard Gephardt, a longtime protectionist, was for steel tariffs and against NAFTA. Senator John Edwards patted himself on the back for having voted "against the Chilean trade agreement, against the Caribbean trade agreement, against the Singapore trade agreement, against final passage of fast track." Represenative Dennis Kucinich vowed to cancel NAFTA on his first day in office.
And even Senator John Kerry, despite a long record of opposing import quotas and other trade barriers, tried to cast himself as an enemy of free trade. "The important thing," he said, "is I would not support the Free Trade of the Americas Act, I would not support the Central American Free Trade Act until they have stronger standards. If they sent them to my desk, I'd veto them."
Alone among the Democrats, only Lieberman has resisted the cynical temptation to attack free trade.
"We can't create jobs by building up walls of protectionism," he argued. One-fifth of Iowa's manufacturing jobs depend on exports, Lieberman said, and the number two and three markets for Iowa products are none other than Canada and Mexico. "You break NAFTA, you're going to cut out tens of thousands of jobs here in Iowa." And millions, he might have added, nationwide.
The Democrats' stance on trade may be the strangest thing yet about this strange political season. In their eagerness to pander to their party's left wing, the Democrats are sounding more and more like Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Who would have thought that Lieberman would be the odd man out for choosing to echo Bill Clinton and Al Gore? Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.