Demand for New Globalization Model Goes Mainstream as Fair-Trade Election Pick-Ups Move Congress' Views Closer to Public's

12/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Co-authored by Todd Tucker

The 2008 election delivered a major shift in the U.S. political landscape away from the disastrous trade and globalization policies of the past. From the presidential race to both chambers of Congress from the traditionally 'free trade' Pacific Northwest to Florida to Colorado to New York to New Mexico, successful candidates in 2008 election races ran on a platform of fundamental overhaul of U.S. trade and globalization policies.

At least 31 vocal fair-traders captured seats previously held by supporters of the NAFTA-CAFTA-WTO status quo. Once the final results are in on the still uncalled races, that number may rise. This builds on the transformation begun in 2006, when 37 fair-traders replaced senators and representatives who had systematically supported race-to-the-bottom globalization policies.

That the demand for a new approach to trade and globalization has hit a tipping point is demonstrated by the unprecedented 140-plus TV ads on trade used in this cycle, including a dozen by President-elect Barack Obama run mainly during the general election. This compares to roughly 25 ads in congressional races in 2006, when criticism of status-quo globalization and trade policy showed an exponential jump from all past election cycles.

Public Citizen's new report, Fair Trade Gets an Upgrade, lists the trade positions for all candidates in over 130 competitive or open-seat races, with an accompanying website displaying the TV ads calling for trade reform. This includes Democrat Jeff Merkley in Oregon who shattered the conventional political wisdom by running and winning as a fair trader in the Pacific Northwest. The failure of the current trade and globalization policies was a top focus of his campaign which ran seven paid trade ads to defeat 100% anti-fair trader GOP incumbent Gordon Smith. Democrat Kay Hagan also used seven different trade-focused ads in North Carolina to beat GOP incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole. And, the details of the defeat of the two representatives who provided the two final votes to pass CAFTA -- Reps. Phil English (R-Pa.) (a senior House Ways and Means Committee member) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) in campaigns focused on their trade betrayals -- will warm the hearts of veterans of past trade battles.

Our research found numerous indicators of how far trade politics have shifted. Campaigning on fair trade is no longer just a Democratic tactic. Eighteen Republicans beat back tough primary and general election challenges by campaigning on a fair-trade platform, including with paid ads. In a dozen races, both the Republican and the Democrat competed in an "anti-NAFTA off," battling to be the most critical of the status-quo trade model. The Democratic Congressional and Senatorial Campaign Committees ran 29 ads on the issue in support of candidates in 17 states. The trade issue proved to be so powerful that we found the DCCC running attack ads against Republicans in races where the Democrat had an anti-fair trade voting record!

Public Citizen's report also reviews the extended national "anti-NAFTA-off" that consumed the Democratic presidential primaries, with Obama and Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y.) competing to be most critical of the pact pushed by Bill Clinton. Presidential primary candidates provided written commitments on an array of trade and globalization reform issues that have never been part of past presidential race. Obama's primary campaign trade-reform commitments became part of the Democratic platform, which also presented a trade-reform agenda not seen in the past. For example, the platform states that no future bilateral trade pacts "will stop the government from protecting the environment, food safety, or the health of its citizens; give greater rights to foreign investors than to U.S. investors; require the privatization of our vital public services; or prevent developing country governments from adopting humanitarian licensing policies to improve access to life-saving medications."

This political shift follows on where the American public has been moving for years. Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that a "free trade agreement" has had a negative effect on their families. Majorities oppose NAFTA across every demographic with Catholic, swing, independent and Hispanics voters among the most anti-NAFTA blocs. GOP voters, by a two-to-one majority, agree that "[f]oreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products."

The challenge facing the newly elected and the re-elected is to translate electoral messaging into real change. Success on middle-class economic-security, health care, and climate-reform agendas will require significant changes to the status-quo model of globalization and the "trade" agreements now implementing it. This is the case because pacts like WTO require signatory countries to conform their domestic policies to a wide array of non-trade rules - from radical financial service deregulation to limits on health-care insurance and green-jobs procurement policies. Plus, the public has had it with the current race-to-the-bottom trade model. Americans voted against those who support it and for those who say they will replace it.

Public expectations after this trade-focused election create pressure to fix the existing trade agreements and policies while further marginalizing various Bush hangover proposals, such as an expansion of the NAFTA to Colombia, a bilateral investment treaty with China, and more financial service liberalization through the Korea Free Trade Agreement and the ongoing WTO Doha Round.

The salience of trade reform in the U.S. election parallels growing demand worldwide for reform of the current international economic architecture comprised by institutions such as the WTO. With global financial, food-price and climate crises dominating the news and bringing the downsides of this globalization model into everyone's homes, U.S. candidates calling for new approaches found a ready audience, and now they must deliver.

You can read the full report (PDF) and check out the trade TV ads. To see an appendix of detailed candidate positions on trade in all tracked races, click here (PDF). Finally, you can review President-elect Obama's trade commitments here (PDF).