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Those Embarrassing Political Vows

August 16, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — Campaigning for the vice presidency on Aug. 31, 1992, Al Gore uttered words that Kip Wixson remembers well--but Gore would probably rather forget.

Gore was standing in front of workers at a foundry in Oakland called American Brass and Iron. Wearing a blue shop coat and a red-and-blue hard hat, he lambasted the China policies of the Bush administration.

"We totally disagree with Bush and Quayle when they continue to grant most-favored-nation status to one of the worst Communist dictatorships remaining in the world, with a record of human rights violations as long as your arm, ignoring their unfair trade practices," Gore thundered.

At the time, Wixson--the company's vice president--was impressed. "It sounded good," he recalled in a phone interview last week.

As it turned out, Gore's words were hollow ones. Over the last eight years, while admitting China's human rights situation has not substantially improved, the Clinton administration has renewed China's trade status each year. This year, it is in the process of making those trade benefits permanent.

The story of the Democrats' China commitment of 1992 is an instructive one, both for those taking part in the Democratic convention this week and for those watching it. It is a sad reminder that what is said at conventions and in campaigns is sometimes meaningless.

Many people now mistakenly believe that China was uniquely Bill Clinton's issue during the presidential campaign of 1992. In accepting the presidential nomination that year, Clinton promised "an America that will not coddle dictators from Beijing to Baghdad."

But in fact, the record on China shows that Clinton was following, rather than leading, the Democratic Party as a whole. On this issue, you can't excuse Gore by saying he was merely adopting Clinton's position.

In both 1991 and 1992, Democratic majorities in Congress--including an outspoken Sen. Gore--passed legislation that would have tied renewals of China's trade benefits to improvements in human rights. Bush vetoed both measures.

At the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York, Chinese democracy was a fashionable cause. At one point, the Democrats turned over the podium to two Chinese dissidents, Chai Ling and Li Lu, who introduced Aretha Franklin to sing "The Star Spangled Banner."

After taking office, Clinton imposed an executive order setting out conditions China would need to satisfy for a renewal of its trade benefits. But in 1994, after China failed to meet those standards, Clinton abandoned the effort.

In essence, then, the Democrats' China policy of 1992 lasted only while it was cost-free, and was junked at the point where the Clinton administration was in jeopardy of losing the support of the business community. Trade linkage was bad policy, said administration officials in 1994--but the time for them to decide that was before, not after, they had made it a campaign issue.

Why dredge up this now? After all, it might be argued, the 1992 campaign was eight years ago, and that's at least two generations in American politics. Shouldn't we forget this sorry episode?

No, we shouldn't, for two reasons.

The first is that what Clinton, Gore and the Democratic Party did on China in 1992 could happen again with some other issue this year.

Who knows what will be this Democratic convention's version of the China issue. Which cause will be espoused now, when it's politically convenient, and later discarded when it proves to be costly?

Will it be health care? Prescription drugs? Labor and environmental standards in trade deals? Or some other strand in the contrived Populism of a presidential candidate who rails against the insurance industry, then appoints one of its Senate supporters as his running mate?

Listen to Gore's speech to the United Auto Workers last Friday afternoon. "As president," he vowed, "I will insist on and use the authority to enforce worker rights, human rights and environmental protections in our trade agreements."

Sounds vaguely reminiscent of what Gore said in Oakland in 1992, doesn't it?

The second reason Gore's words then are worth remembering is that there are real people and companies that believe the rhetoric and are then left embittered.

Among them are Wixson and others at American Brass and Iron. The Bay Area company, which employs about 180 people, manufactures pipes and fittings for sale in Western states.

Over the last eight years, the company has faced increasing competition from, of all places, China. There was one surge of imports in 1994-95, and another in 1998, and these Chinese goods cut into American Brass' market share.

The company claims that the Chinese products are being dumped below cost into the American market. So as their problems mounted, American Brass and Iron officials and workers did the logical thing: They tried to contact Gore, their visitor from the 1992 campaign.

"We have written him a number of letters, none of which has been answered," says Wixson. "I guess it was a one-way conversation."

As you listen to Gore this week, ask not what he is saying. Ask how much he is committed to his own promises. Will his words prove as empty as the China rhetoric of 1992?

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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