- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

It’s tempting to chalk up the challenges facing the Central American Free Trade Agreement in Congress as victory for a cabal of conservative protectionists and liberal anti-globalization forces — picture Pat Buchanan on stilts protesting in front of the World Bank. But that facetious image fails the accuracy test.

CAFTA’s current wobbly political path was neither hastily forged nor a recent development. Rather, it evolved over the past decade caused by a slow leak in support for a free-trade agenda among Democrats. It’s unclear how — or if — repairing the damage from the standpoint of free-trade advocates is possible. But there is no doubt that the collapse of Democratic support will alter the style and substance of the debate for years to come.

Last month, the four co-chairmen of the 40-member House New Democrat Coalition (NDC), normally free traders, announced their opposition to CAFTA. But the New Democrats’ resistance is part of a broader trend the most recent chapter in a narrative realigning and homogenizing the party’s position. CAFTA could witness the lowest level of Democratic support of any trade agreement in history.

Are Democrats the eight-track tape of free trade? According to The Washington Post’s Tom Edsall, Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California, one of the NDC’s co-chairs, surprised many pro-free trade industry lobbyists by announcing opposition to CAFTA last month. The “promise of trade liberalization has not lived up to the rhetoric, certainly not for American workers,” she said. Mrs. Tauscher complained the administration “did not discuss the agreement with the Democrats,” and told U.S. trade officials “it’s at your own risk that you leave Democrats out and you only come to us when you are 30 votes down,” according to Mr. Edsall.

But for those who watch trade policy in Congress closely, these pronouncements were no shocker. Republican lobbyists see political motives, arguing these lawmakers are knuckling under to labor unions and environmental interest groups. “They are doing what they are told rather than what they believe and deserting their constituents for a failed economic model,” one former Republican House leadership aide who has represented the high-tech industry told me. “They need the union money and their ground operations. It’s just too hard to oppose labor on trade and get their help as a Democrat,” he said.

Democratic lobbyists have a different view. “Free trade is a lot more complicated than just opening markets,” a former Clinton White House official told me. “Sometimes opening markets means putting money in the hands of corrupt ruling families or companies with horrific labor and environmental records. People like Ellen Tauscher just got fed up with seeing a big gap between rhetoric and reality.” Whether you think its politics or principle, one thing is clear: Democratic support for free trade — particularly in the House — has collapsed over the past decade, while Republican proportions of support — and opposition have held steady.

For example, more than 80 percent of House Democrats supported granting Most Favored Nations (as it was called then) to China in the early 1990s, nearly 40 percent agreed to the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, while well over half supported GATT in 1994. But by the middle of the decade, Democratic numbers supporting free trade with China were cut by nearly half with just above 50 percent of House Democrats supporting the free trade position. And by 2001 only 21 Democrats (or about 10 percent) voted for Trade Promotion Authority, in another major free-trade showdown.

During the same period, Republican votes on free trade have remained remarkably stable, compared to the sharp Democratic declines. About a quarter to a third of the Republican Party has consistently voted against a free-trade position. Republicans split in 1991 granting MFN to China, but since then about 25 percent to 30 percent consistently voted against extending it. Similar percentages voted against NAFTA and GATT.

Trade policies, like other issues in Washington, have been mugged by drive-by polarization — but on trade, changes have been asymmetrical. While the Republicans have remained relatively steady on a proportional basis — Democrats for and against have become homogenized free-trade skeptics. This shift in the politics will impact policy on the issue, meaning whatever you think about Pat and his friends on stilts, they may be making progress — thanks mostly to the Democrats.

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