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"Free" Trade & 2008 Democratic Presidential Politics

03/12/2006 06:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Finally, one of the major corporate media outlets is taking citizens' very real concerns about "free" trade seriously. A new Wall Street Journal report rationally describes how the Dubai ports scandal pierced the veil of the Democratic and Republican Party's happy talk about the virtues of unbridled "free" trade policies that strip away all protections for labor, human rights and national security. In the process, the piece explores why citizens – both in America and abroad – are sick of being told by pundits, politicians and insulated intellectual elitists that "free" trade is the greatest thing since sliced bread. And as the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries approach, it is clear that the race could very well be decided by candidates' willingness - or unwillingness - to confront trade in a serious way.

The Journal piece starts off by noting that the uproar over the port deal reflects "a broader anxiety among workers in developed countries: that their livelihoods are threatened" by competition from people in far off lands whose wages and living standards are crushed by the repressive regimes they live under. As just one example, see Malaysia – the country the Bush administration is trying to negotiate a new "free" trade deal with, even though its official state policy is to oppose any minimum wage whatsoever. "The outrage over the ports deal shows that many voters think they aren't benefiting from globalization and, in fact, blame it for their economic insecurities," writes the Journal. The piece continues:

"Since World War II, the U.S. has led efforts to break down barriers to trade, and in recent decades, the barriers to investment. Separately, many governments have moved to deregulate much of their domestic economies, particularly in finance, telecommunications, utilities and transportation, and to sell off government-owned enterprises to private, often foreign, investors. Many consumers understand how free trade can bring them cheaper goods but find it difficult to grasp how they benefit if a foreigner buys the company they work for. Starting in the 1980s, Bolivia instituted harsh stabilization policies prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and sold off many government-owned enterprises, in some cases selling control to foreign owners. The policies ended hyperinflation and boosted Bolivian economic growth to among the fastest in Latin America. But few benefits trickled down to the average worker, and both extreme poverty and a wide gap between rich and poor persisted...[Similarly], though the U.S. economy has grown strongly in the last three years, wages have not, and many workers blame that on competition from China. High oil prices, blamed on foreign producers, also have contributed."

Congress – incredibly – seems to suddenly be waking up to this reality. In some ways, lawmakers' shock over pitfalls of the "free" trade policies they have been pushing is disgusting: how are they just waking up to these harsh consequences? But then again, better late than never. And the moves ahead could be serious:

"A flurry of legislative proposals seeks to put foreign investment under more intense scrutiny. Two House Republicans, for instance, are pushing a bill that would block foreign companies from buying into a wide array of enterprises, ranging from energy companies to utilities. Many lawmakers, citing the need to protect 'American sovereignty,' are also fighting an effort by the Bush administration to further open the U.S. airline business to outside investment. Other legislative proposals would give the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which typically weighs and signs off on about 250 foreign deals a year, purview over a broader array of deals, while raising the hurdles that investors must clear. There is even talk of giving Congress some form of veto power, a move that U.S. business and the Bush administration would fight strenuously."

"Strenuously" is an understatement – the harsh reaction from the Bush administration and its corporate backers to the ports scandal shows just how desperate they are to protect the profit-at-all-cost agenda they've been thrusting down America's throat for the last twenty years. And with leading opinionmakers like Tom Friedman gallivanting around the world using his corporate-funded platform to dress up the "free" trade agenda as a panacea, there is an intense propaganda system in place to preserve the status quo.

But something is happening out here in the heartland. People are sick and tired of being told by bought-off politicians and snobbish, gated-community-class pundits from Bethesda, Fairfax, or the Upper West Side of Manhattan that they should just sit back and relax as our country's future is sold off to the highest bidder. That anger will play out more and more in our politics – and it will likely be especially front and center in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. And looking at the current crop of potential candidates, it's going to be interesting. There are four distinct categories of potential candidates.

The first category is the ardent "free" traders, many of them personally responsible for the trade policies that are destroying America's middle class. These are people like NAFTA architect Bill Richardson and longtime and loudly outspoken "free" trader Evan Bayh.

Then there are the people who have tried to have it both ways, but whose devotion to Tom Friedman-esque "free" trade orthodoxy is pretty clear. These are people like Hillary Clinton, who supported NAFTA, WTO and China PNTR, John Kerry, who did the same, and Mark Warner, who also supported NAFTA and WTO, though did not support the China deal.

The third category is candidates with mixed voting records on trade, but who have displayed a genuine interest in rejecting the free-trade-at-all-cost dogma. The only candidate in this category is John Edwards, who voted against some of the corporate-written trade deals that came down the pike during his Senate term, and who has made a class-based "Two America's" message his signature theme.

And the final category is candidates who have loudly opposed all of the sell-out trade deals, even when that opposition has been politically unpopular. Again, this is a one-candidate category right now, and that candidate is Russ Feingold - a guy who has not only voted against selling out America, but has made the issue central to his public image by airing campaign ads about his courageous stands on the issue.

As the early presidential jostling has started to pick up, we've of course seen some of the candidates in the first two categories make moves to address the growing anger throughout the country. For instance, category 1 and 2 candidates like Clinton, Kerry and even Bayh voted against the recent Central American Free Trade Agreement, and Kerry aggressively used his position on the Senate Finance Committee to try to seriously improve CAFTA. All of that is a good thing, and even the super-cynical among us can hope that these moves - whether heartfelt, opportunistic, or both - indicate a fundamental rethinking about the trade issue by these candidates.

But make no mistake about it - along with the Iraq War, the interplay between the first two categories and the last two categories just described on trade could very well be what defines the primary race, especially considering the free-trade-ravaged states of Iowa and South Carolina are early primary states. Trade is where the biggest fault lines lie, both in America between the Establishment elitists and the population, and in the Democratic Party between the "free" traders and the fair traders.

That means candidates in the first two categories should be worried - and should do everything they can to get themselves into category 3 before the race really heats up. Because if Edwards, Feingold or another as-yet-announced candidate really bases their candidacy on an indictment of the "free" trade policies that are hurting our country, they will be tapping into an intense outrage that can fuel a successful insurgent candidacy. Stay tuned.