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Democrats Turning Into Free Trade Critics

The shift in thinking of Dean, Kerry, Edwards reflects the economic slump and union power.

September 25, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Retreating from a central pillar of Bill Clinton's economic strategy, almost all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates are expressing growing skepticism about free trade.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina have moved away from past positions and joined Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, a longtime critic of free trade, in resisting efforts to lower trade barriers with Mexico and other nations in South America and Asia.

Among the top-tier candidates, only Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut continues to consistently push the Clinton emphasis on forging trade agreements.

The shift reflects the decline in the economy, the rise in the trade deficit and the growing influence of organized labor in a primary race that appears to be tilting the Democratic Party back toward the left on many fronts.

"In the 1990s, the trade deficit was masked by a generally strong economy, though even then we had a job loss in manufacturing," said Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO. "Now there is a growing consensus that trade has a downside," he said, particularly when U.S. trading partners do not have to meet American labor and environmental standards.

The Democrats' movement away from free trade, which is likely to be on vivid display when the candidates meet today in New York for a debate on economic issues, could have important implications for the primary and general elections.

In the primary, the hawkish notes from Dean, Kerry and Edwards are diminishing an advantage that Gephardt expected among blue-collar workers and labor unions -- and prompting him to accuse the others of opportunism.

For the general election, the turn toward economic nationalism seems guaranteed to heighten the split between organized labor, which has welcomed the change in emphasis, and party centrists, who worry that a candidate who appears sympathetic to protectionism cannot win in November 2004.

"No Democrat since the Civil War has succeeded with a negative approach on trade," said Ed Gresser, director of the trade policy project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

The move away from free trade also increases the odds of a sharp contrast between the Democratic nominee and President Bush next year. Though Bush has also bent toward protectionist pressures -- most notably with steel tariffs -- he is generally pursuing an agenda of lowering trade barriers.

The administration, which has already signed free-trade deals with Chile and Singapore, is pushing to complete a free-trade agreement with Central America, perhaps as soon as this year.

That would be the first step toward completing a project begun by Clinton to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada into a free-trade zone extending throughout the Western Hemisphere. The administration is pushing to complete such an agreement by 2005.

Among Democrats, the trade debate is drawing on long-standing divisions and new pressures: The trade deficit, which exceeded $418 billion in 2002, is now roughly six times larger than during the first year of Clinton's presidency. That has aggravated the divisions in the party evident throughout Clinton's two terms, when many congressional Democrats close to organized labor resisted his pursuit of new trade deals.

Convinced that more trade meant more jobs, Clinton led a bruising fight in 1993 to secure congressional approval for NAFTA. Later he won another congressional vote providing China with permanent favorable access to the U.S. market.

In Congress, Gephardt led the fight against Clinton on free trade with Mexico and China and helped defeat his push in his second term for authority to negotiate trade deals with limited congressional input, a procedure then known as "fast track."

But generally, the other leading Democrats in the 2004 race supported Clinton. Lieberman and Kerry voted for NAFTA, and Dean also endorsed it. (Edwards was not yet in Congress.)

In 2000, Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards voted to give China permanent favorable access to the U.S. market. Dean also endorsed the move, writing to Clinton: "A negative vote would have terrible consequences."

The candidates divided along largely similar lines in 2002 when Bush finally won congressional approval for fast-track negotiating authority.

Kerry and Lieberman voted twice to provide Bush expedited authority; Edwards supported the authority initially but voted against final passage of the bill because it lacked protections for the North Carolina textile industry. Gephardt strenuously opposed the effort. Dean, who appeared sympathetic to fast track under Clinton, told campaign audiences that he would not provide Bush with the authority.

Dean, Kerry and Edwards have recently joined Gephardt in declaring that they would oppose Bush's effort to expand NAFTA into South America without much stronger guarantees of worker rights and environmental protection.

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