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Cause & Effect: The Anatomy of a Big Progressive Victory

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Cause and effect - it's always hard to precisely pin down this relationship in politics, but a stunning announcement late last week shows how the two are related, and how to use them for major movement victories.

Let's first start with the cause. In February, the Progressive States Network, Public Citizen, and the Citizens Trade Campaign worked with State Sen. Jim Elliott (D-MT) to push a resolution in Montana's State Senate demanding that Montana's congressional delegation oppose President Bush's request to reauthorize "fast track" trade negotiating authority - the lobbyist-backed authority that allows presidents to strip labor, wage, human rights and environmental provisions out of trade deals. This resolution is part of the Progressive States Network's ongoing national campaign to introduce similar resolutions in other states.

Elliott's resolution passed the State Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, garnering widespread media attention specifically because Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) was bragging about his support for reauthorizing fast track and because he is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees trade policy.

Soon after Elliott's resolution passed, They Work For Us launched radio ads in Montana's major media markets citing the State Senate vote, and asking Montanans to call Baucus and tell him to back off his support for President Bush's job-destroying, wage-crushing trade policy. Big Money interests, led by the agribusiness-backed Montana Farm Bureau, tried to fight back with a big op-ed in the Billings Gazette, Montana's largest paper. But the Progressive States Network fought back, two days later penning an response op-ed with the Montana Farmers Union, which represents small family farmers and ranchers.

This fair trade cause has had finally had a major effect. Here's the report from the Hill Newspaper from Friday:

"In a significant change of position, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) now says it is not currently necessary to extend President Bush's fast-track trade authority. Baucus, the top Democrat on trade, told reporters Friday there is no immediate need to extend fast-track, which makes it easier for the White House to negotiate trade deals...This is a shift from January when the senator, who has been under pressure in Montana to reject an extension of fast-track, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Congress should renew fast-track authority with some changes...Montana's state Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, approved a resolution earlier this year asking Congress to create a replacement for fast-track, which prevents trade deals from being amended."

To be sure, Baucus's decision to change course was probably the result of many things. But for a senator who publicly recites Tom Friedman's talking points about trade and who recently cheered on job outsourcing while on a trip to India, this is a major reversal, and one clearly brought on by grassroots, outside-the-Beltway pressure that used Baucus's imminent campaign for re-election as a fulcrum to force him to start representing his constituents' interests.

Make no mistake about it: This pressure is going to have to be sustained not just with Baucus but with every lawmaker as the fight for fair trade heats up. Businessweek today reports that corporate campaign contributions are flooding the Democratic Party as never before - with Wall Street in particular showering lawmakers in cash. That money comes with the expectation of legislative favors. And because our current trade policy rewards companies that exploit non-existent labor, human rights and environmental protections in the developing world, preserving our current lobbyist-written trade policy is high on every Wall Street CEO's list of priorities. This would explain why, for instance, Citigroup executive and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has established the so-called "Hamilton Project" - a free-trade corporate front group whose launch was keynoted by Barack Obama and, as Businessweek previously reported, which is "refining" the entire economic platform of some top-tier Democratic presidential candidates. These forces are trying to make sure that if a Democratic president is elected in 2008, he/she will "do little to redress the structure of financial inequality in America," as Bob Kuttner writes in the American Prospect today.

Thankfully, however, the progressive movement is fast maturing, playing both a tenacious outside game as shown above, and building an aggressive inside game. Freshmen senators, for instance, recently held a meeting with Baucus to demand he use his position to advocate for fair trade policies. Similarly, freshman House Democrats wrote a letter to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) demanding he use his position to represent Election 2006's fair trade mandate, rather than K Street's agenda.

Meanwhile, courageous, forward-thinking business leaders like Leo Hindery are stepping up and speaking out against the Rubin-Hamilton Project orthodoxy that has reshaped the American economy into one that gives more and more of its benefits to fewer and fewer people. Hindery, a leading Wall Street investor, recently joined me in writing a major op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle telling Congress to reject "fast track." And, in a new must-read cover story by The Nation's William Greider, we get the details of the Horizon Project, which Hindery and former IBM executive Ralph Gomory are spearheading:

"We want to be a counter to the Hamilton Project," Hindery explains. "They have a sense of stasis that is more benign than I have. I don't think this is all going to work out."..."We're never going to have the status of Bob Rubin," Hindery concedes. "But we're not chopped liver either. We have respectable business careers."...In recent months Gomory and Leo Hindery of the Horizon Project have been calling on Congress with these big ideas and getting respectful audiences...Hindery's group is advocating Congressional action to arrange a "national summit" on trade.

All of this is the outline of a real, cohesive, and well-developed movement - as opposed to disorganized pieces of a movement - and it provides a model for every other fight ahead. The effort started at the grassroots level outside of Washington, D.C., both with state legislative resolutions and even before that, with 2006 candidates running against our current trade policy. Now that momentum is building, a critical inside-the-Beltway game is simultaneously kicking into gear. You probably won't hear a breakdown of this victory by most Beltway media - D.C. reporters are too busy self-importantly frothing over the latest presidential fundraising numbers or campaign staff gossip to deal with an issue of global importance like, say, trade. But that's perfectly fine: In the age of the Internet and intensified grassroots politics, the progressive movement doesn't need Establishment attention to forge real success.

Clearly, our success so far in this battle is something K Street lobbyists and the free trade fundamentalist crowd in the corporate boardrooms are surprised about. They were expecting what they've gotten used to in the past: Namely, being able to buy the entire political debate so as to ram their economically destructive agenda through a corrupt Congress. This is particularly true on trade issues - issues that lobbyists have been able to dominate like Shaquille O'Neal playing center in a middle school basketball game. That we are even having a real debate on trade right now is amazing. That we have actually forced the single most important lawmaker in Congress to reverse his position is an unfathomably huge accomplishment. And if we continue to keep up the pressure at the grassoots level by using state legislative arenas and by leveraging the presidential primaries to demand candidates champion a pro-middle class trade agenda, we have a very real chance to finally reform America's economic policies for the better.