07/26/2006 10:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dems' "Free" Trade Zealots Change Their Tune

Something profound is happening – something that I never, ever would have predicted. The Democratic Party's elite players in Washington and on Wall Street are realizing there is something very, very wrong with the so-calle "free" trade policies (read: corporate protectionist pacts) they've rammed down America's throat. They are starting – finally – to listen to the brave trade reformers like Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Democratic Party icon Leo Hindery and many others who have for years warned of the very severe consequences more and more Americans are now living through as a result of corporate-written trade pacts.

Party insiders have gone through three distinct phases in their evolution: first was the Shilling Phase, when President Clinton abandoned his crystal clear 1992 campaign promises (documented in Hostile Takeover) to only sign trade deals that included labor, human rights, and environmental protections and instead inked pacts like NAFTA and China PNTR that were deliberately stripped of those provisions, but were chock full of protectionist measures for corporate profits.

Then there was the Apologist Phase. This came toward the end of the Clinton presidency when Democratic Party insiders acknolwedged that yes, ordinary American's were being hammered by the stagnating wages, skyrocketing health premiums and slashed benefits. But, they said, those problems could only be solved by passing even more trade pacts that they claimed would alleviate these problems – rather than exacerbate them.

Then there was the Denial Phase that began sometime after President Bush was elected. Yes, Democratic Party elites said, corporate-written trade pacts were creating serious economic havoc for ordinary Americans, and maybe slowing down the pace of these trade pacts is a good idea. That's why a growing number of Democratic lawmakers in Congress, for instance, voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and against the Oman Free Trade Agreement. Yet still, these elites consistently denied that anything systemic could be done to create a more fair and equitable global trade policy.

Now, though, it appears that finally the very comfortable-in-the-minority Democratic Party insiders who have been so awash in the Big Money culture of Washington may be coming out of denial – albeit slowly. For instance, this week the New Democratic Network (NDN) is suddenly admitted that the "free" trade policies it pushed so hard for are creating severe problems in the American economy. Similarly, in an extraordinary interview with The Nation's William Greider, Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin acknowledged that trade policies have intensified economic inequality, and that that inequality needs to be addressed. He also acknowledges that in order for trade to really work, labor must be able to seriously negotiate with employers. These are breakthrough steps for someone like Rubin – a Wall Street icon and the architect of the "free" trade policies we are now suffering through.

Both NDN and Rubin, of course, are still planted in the Denial Phase. For instance, you will note that NDN has all sorts of criticism, but still goes only as far as saying the economic problems Americans face are due to the "changing nature of the global economy" – crafty wording to make sure that the specific "free" trade pacts themselves are never frontally indicted. NDN also doesn't advocate for demanding stronger labor, human rights, environmental and wage protections as the American government's prerequisite for signing trade pacts.

Likewise, Rubin, still ignores all of the economic indicators showing ordinary Americans are struggling as never before, flippantly telling Greider, "Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't think there's anything in the design of the [trade] system we would have done differently." He then says "I would not hold back from going ahead on a trade agreement because another country refused to accept labor standards" – yet another endorsement of enacting trade agreements regardless of whether that agreement puts American workers in competition with slave laborers from, say, North Korea – a move the Bush administration is currently considering.

Nevertheless, the deniers' admissions are stunning. To be sure, some of the admissions might be due not to an acknowlegement by these folks that government should actually work for ordinary people, but instead by crass political calculation. Some of these folks correctly see what many of us have said for a very long time: that a message pushing a reform of corporate-written trade policy is not just good policy, but would regain the votes of the very working class constituencies the Democratic Party has lost during its advocacy of "free" trade deals.

Frankly, I don't care what is motivating the change. It might be political calculation, it might be that folks like NDN's Simon Rosenberg and Rubin are so personally addicted to being in the middle of the political action, that they see that trade is the big train leaving the station and know they need to jump aboard and pretend to be the engineers so as to remain relevant. Whatever it is, it's great – and I sincerely say to them and others: welcome aboard, regardless of your tardiness, your hypocrisy or your motivation.

Make no mistake about it - there are still some corporate-funded groups who purport to represent Democrats that are fighting this change tooth and nail. As one example, the Democratic Leadership Council has not backed off its aggressive advocacy of sellout "free" trade deals that benefit its Big Money sponsors. They continue to claim that they are "centrists" who support a "Big Tent" that can supposedly include both the vast majority of ordinary Americans, and the elites who are using trade policy to wage a class war on that vast majority. But as I told the New York Sun, "You can't put the steelworkers, working class people, in the same tent with an organization that continues to push trade policies that sell out workers - I don't care how big a tent you have. You just can't do it."

The fact is, America's entire economic foundation is now under threat thanks, in part, to the sellout trade policies these insiders have gotten the Democratic Party to capitulate to. Such capitulating has been trumpeted by editorial pages at most major national papers and pundits/shills like columnist Tom Friedman – a person who goes on national television and openly brags that he doesn't even bother to learn a damn thing about the trade policies he advocates for.

But the evidence makes clear this capitulating by Democrats is coming to an end. Both the closer votes in Congress and the public rethinking of trade by those still in the Denial Phase are big signs. So is the behavior of those still pushing these pacts. At the DLC's recent conference, for instance, the organization didn't even talk about its "free" trade agenda, despite that issue being its major focus for so long. The silence was a huge indication of the sea change. As I told the Boston Globe, "Their omissions are admissions of the unpopularity of the positions they've staked their name on in the past" (though let's be clear: the omissions are certainly no indication that they intend to stop pushing for these sellout pacts).

The truth is painfully obvious: the sooner we start demanding labor, environmental, human rights and wage protections be as important in trade deals as intellectual property, copyright, patent and other corporate profit protections, the sooner we start creating an economic race to the top, rather than an economic Darwinism that will drive down all workers' standard of living. Everytime a hardworking American is victimized by a factory closing, an outsourced job or a pension cut that Darwinism is at work. It's offensive that it has taken so long for the Democratic Party - the party that is supposed to represent that hardworking American - to start realizing the way on trade. But better late than never.