It seemed, at first glance, strange - really strange. Why would President Bush make a massive economic stimulus package and aid to automakers contingent on Democratic support for a relatively tiny trade deal with a Latin American nation that has one of the worst human rights records in the world? Why would our gambling president, who always bets big, ask for something so seemingly small? Those are the questions I examine in my new syndicated newspaper column this week, and the answer is pretty clear: He's looking both to cement the NAFTA trade model, and tear apart the Democratic congressional majority before it has time to unify behind a bold agenda.
In terms of direct economic impact, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is a drop in the bucket (though because it pits American workers into a salary-cutting competition with foreign workers who can be killed for joining a union, it will put additional downward pressure on domestic wages). It's outsized relevance in this week's high-profile Oval Office meeting between President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama was as a political instrument - not an economic one - a tool to wedge apart the Democratic Party.
There's clear historical precedent for that. Go read Rick MacArthur's timeless book The Selling of Free Trade and you'll see how Bush's father dropped NAFTA into the lap of the last new Democratic administration, and it was NAFTA that then fractured the congressional Democratic majority between its Wall Street wing and its progressive wing; thus demoralizing the progressive movement, scuttling health care reform, and helping birth the 1994 Republican revolution.
Fortunately, the Obama team appears to see what Bush is trying to do. In a bit of strange bedfellows, Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel - the same Rahm Emanuel who championed NAFTA as a Clinton staffer - has said Obama will not support linking the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to economic stimulus. That's good policy and good politics - the latter both because of the resounding election mandate against NAFTA-style trade deals, and because it will prevent Bush's last-ditch effort to fracture the Democratic Party.
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