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David Sirota Headshot

Sherrod Brown's Lesson for the Democratic Party

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In America's money-drenched political system, our government's sellout trade policy is something that is rarely - if ever - discussed in an honest way. Big Money interests are unified in wanting a trade policy that includes no labor, human rights, environmental or workplace protections. They flood Congress with campaign cash to make sure that trade pacts are stripped of these very basic provisions, and chock full of protectionist patent, copyright and intellectual property provisions that keep prices of goods high. Lage media conglomerates, meanwhile, have their own financial incentives in pushing this trade policy, and subsequently stock their editorial pages with pundits like Tom Friedman, Joe Klein and David Brooks - pundits who wear their class on their sleeve, deliberately avoid reporting on how this trade policy is destroying our economy, and instead use their platforms to justify policies that sell out America. And too often, activists on both the left and the right swallow whole the Establishment's myth that this trade policy - and its cosequences of decimated wages and job outsourcing - are just a force of nature that we can't stop, instead of the very deliberate and calculated result of very specific public policy decisions designed to exclusively serve Big Money.

Enter Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown - the congressman now running for the U.S. Senate who has made reforming America's trade policy his top priority. Brown has gone up against both Republicans and those in his own party who have ignored Americans' well-documented concerns about this trade policy, and instead jammed pacts like NAFTA, China PNTR and CAFTA down our country's throat. Brown's courage on this issue - and devotion to fighting the uphill battle - is shown not only in his voting record and leadership, but in the fact that he has even written a book called The Myths of Free Trade spelling out exactly how this trade policy is deliberately undermining Americans' economic security.

Now, in his run for the Senate, Brown is making his leadership on trade his central theme. And not surprisingly, the Establishment is attacking him for it. A new story on the Associated Press wire says "Brown's Campaign Strategy Is Questioned" with the news service breathlessly claiming his "focus on trade policy in Senate race is called risky." Forget about the risks this trade policy poses to workers, human rights, the environment and America's economic security - what AP (like other media outlets and power brokers in both parties) wants us to believe is "risky" is anyone actually questioning this madness.

What's perhaps even more ridiculous than the AP story's frame is the claims in the piece that are used to justify the story. For instance, AP says "voters didn't respond to trade issues in 2004 the way many election analysts thought they would." The reporter then quotes a college professor saying, "If people were voting their pocketbook in 2004 like they traditionally had, the trade issue would have had a major impact. It didn't."

Really? Voters didn't respond? Doesn't that assumes they would be responding to something? Because last I checked, neither party's presidential candidates offered up any message whatsoever on trade other than feeding us the standard Friedman-esque World-Is-Flat B.S. line that "free" trade deals are good for America. Kerry tried to offer up a bit more by saying he'd repeal tax breaks for outsourcers, but this was hardly a serious message indicting the trade policies of the last 20 years.

That silence was a real tragedy. According to the Associated Press's own exit polls on Ohio primary day,  seven in 10 voters in Ohio voters blamed foreign trade for taking away jobs. Those 7 in 10 voters didn't "not respond" to trade when the general election came - they had nothing to respond to and thus voted on other issues.

That's going to be different in 2006, especially with Brown running against the out-of-touch, lobbyist-in-politician's clothing - Sen. Mike DeWine (R). The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently documented how DeWine has racked up a record as one of Corporate America's most obedient puppets on Capitol Hill. On all sorts of issues, DeWine has pocketed tens of thousands of dollars from Big Money and then gone down to the Senate floor to sell out his constituents - all while claiming with a straight face that the huge wads of special interest cash hanging out of his pocket have nothing to do with his votes.

Trade is no exception for DeWine. For example, he's running around Ohio telling people that NAFTA has been a "big success from Ohio's point-of-view." He's making this claim in a state that has lost hundreds of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs since NAFTA passed. In fact, he's saying this less than two years after studies were released showing Ohio has lost at least 45,000 jobs specifically because of NAFTA alone. But that's Mike DeWine - a guy so totally out of touch he thinks its a good campaign strategy to insult voters intelligence with lobbyist-packaged dishonesty.

Make no mistake about it - DeWine's defense of America's sellout trade policy will be backed up by his Big Money donors, media pundits and editorial boards. And Sherrod Brown will likely be the target of more hit pieces like this Associated Press story. Why? Because Sherrod Brown is a threat to the Establishment that is making a killing off the status quo. That makes him a target - but it also shows why his candidacy is so important.

Sherrod Brown is a guy who has made his career standing up to the corrupt forces in both parties, even when it means a political risk for him personally. He's a guy running in the biggest Senate race in the country in the most politically important state in America, and running openly as an unabashed progressive populist who is willing to go up against Big Money interests even on an issue like trade, where these interests are unified. He's not hiding from the word "progressive" by pretending to be Republican lite. In fact, he's doing the exact opposite. As he told the Washington Post, he's going to "show a progressive Democrat can win in a state like Ohio."  

We need more Democrats like this - because in their courage, they speak to the deeper issue of character and conviction. They define themselves as actually standing for something, even when it might be politically difficult. If Democrats had more Sherrod Browns, we would have more winning campaigns, and more winning legislative fights that would change this country for the better.