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Democrats Won in Murtha's District on Trade Reform

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In 1986, I was born in Rep. John Murtha's district in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Two years later, card-carrying ACLU member Michael Dukakis carried the county by an 11-point margin in a year in which he won only nine states nationally. Despite being a rural, basically all-white county, it stuck by Dukakis due to the concentration of union manufacturing jobs in the district.

Yet in 2008 my home county voted for Republican Sen. John McCain by a 17-point margin. What happened between those years? Democrats sold out on NAFTA, the North American Free-Trade Agreement, and thousands of manufacturing jobs disappeared. Voters in Murtha's district started voting Republican because they felt betrayed by the Democrats. In 2008, Murtha's district was the only district in the country that voted for Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and then voted McCain in 2008.

While Democrats were voted out at the national level in Murtha's district, Murtha was re-elected repeatedly because he brought home defense manufacturing jobs and fought against unfair trade deals. When Murtha died, many political analysts said that no other Democrat would be able to hold onto his district. What they should have said is that no Democrat running on the national Democratic jobs platform could have won.

Instead, Democrat Mark Critz ran on a much more progressive platform of job creation through trade reform. He blasted his Republican candidate for being in favor of tax loopholes that favor companies that outsource jobs, even as the Obama Administration just this week used a lobbyist memo to claim that outsourcing created jobs. On a side note, Critz also blasted his opponent for supporting a value-added tax, something the Obama administration is also considering.

The lesson should be clear: Trade reform is a hugely popular issue on both the left and right. Many conservative Democrats, such as Heath Shuler of North Carolina, used trade issues to propel themselves into office in 2006. In 2008, President Obama pledged to renegotiate NAFTA, something McCain was against, in order to win Ohio. (However, renegotiating trade deals is now considered laughable within the Administration now.)

Trade is also an area where the so called "populist" Tea Party is weak. There is absolutely no mention of trade reform in the Tea Party's official "Contract From America." (See Roger Bybee's great piece on this problem for the Tea Party Movement.) Democrats could easily then seize the high ground on trade.

Trade is an issue that candidates can win on in 2010. Start by passing the Promoting American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010, which would extend unemployment benefits, COBRA subsidies, and provide money for jobs programs. In addition, the bill would close tax loopholes that make it profitable for companies to outsource jobs. Blue Dog Democrats have been wary to pass this bill up to this point, but as Blue Dog Mark Critz's experience shows, getting tough on trade is good election politics.

However, if President Obama really wanted to win over voters he could do it by fulfilling his campaign pledge to renegotiate NAFTA (a pledge now considered "laughable" within the Administration). Then Obama could fulfill another campaign promise by slapping tariffs on illegal Chinese currency manipulation which make Chinese goods 25-40% cheaper than American goods.

The great thing about renegotiating NAFTA and slapping tariffs on China is that by law Obama doesn't need congressional approval to do it. He could do it unilaterally and send a huge signal to voters that he, along with those who support this policy, on the side of American workers. The president could use these steps to lay out a bold vision for an industrial policy to rebuild America.

Part of the America's Future Now conference in Washington D.C. from June 7-9 will be devoted to strategy on how the progressive movement can move the president to do this. Speakers such as Van Jones, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, AFL CIO President Richard Trumka, Arianna Huffington will offer a bold vision for how the progressive movement can rebuild America's economy and put people back to work. Click here to attend.