Friday, June 3, 2011

1997: The Defeat of Fast Track

I still have a few old rants from the 90s lying around, but just a few. This anti-"free trade" polemic referred to the plan for such agreements to be rushed through Congress on an up-or-down vote – no amendments allowed. An aroused public flooded the Capitol switchboard with calls and shot down that plan. There is a current news hook here, a JGRTWT from the UK paper The Independent. Johann Hari explains that the crimes of DSK, odious as they are, are really the least of the matter at the IMF. As he puts it: "Imagine a prominent figure was charged, not with raping a hotel maid, but with starving her, and her family, to death." The IMF's "free trade" agenda of global Reaganomics has led to mass suffering on a planetary scale. An aroused public would be helpful in this case as well. 

I've heard several commentators commentate to the effect that the defeat of fast track represents the beginning of Clinton's lame duck era (never mind that it was a defeat for Gingrich as well). The conventional wisdom also has it that this is a major blow to Al Gore in his race with Dick Gephardt for the Democratic nomination in '00. None of this exactly breaks my heart.

Of course it's too early to write off anybody with the political skills of Bill Clinton, but there are limits to what even he can do to finesse the differences between the Gingrich Republicans and the Gephardt Democrats. Some would argue that Clinton just had to kiss the Republicans' butts if he wanted to pass any of his agenda, such as it is. Others would argue that we might not have a Republican Congress in the first place if Clinton hadn't been such a weasel.

But apparently some Democrats have reached the limits of their tolerance for GOP butt-kissing by Mr. Clinton (and Mr. Gore). I consider this all to the good. And apparently a good many of them were insulted by Clinton's characterization of this issue as a "no-brainer." I saw Nancy Pelosi on TV declaring against fast track right after that, saying, "Mr. President, I would have hoped you could see why those of us who support human rights, the environment and labor rights couldn't vote with the Republicans on this one." According to the New York Times, Rep. DeFazio of Oregon confronted Erskine Bowles by calling the President's comments "outrageous and insulting," and indicating that it was "tantamount to saying that Bowles favored fast track not on its merits, but simply to increase the size of his stock portfolio."

So I guess it was a brainer after all. But that wasn't the only instance of arrogance and incompetence from Clinton on this one. The very closeness of the margin indicates that he might have been able to pull it off, but word is that he got started awfully late, and failed to coordinate his lobbying efforts with those of interested corporate poobahs. But what finally killed fast track was that Clinton had loaded it with far too many Republican goodies for the Democrats to swallow.

Those who commentate for a living seem somewhat bewildered by all of this. A few days prior to the scheduled vote, the San Jose Mercury News pulled out all the stops in echoing the President's no-brainer stance. In both a regular editorial and a "news analysis" in the front section, the Merc implied that opponents of fast track were just naive fools, motivated by nothing other than knee-jerk protectionism. And in a front-page, above-the-fold news headline, no less, the Merc officially pronounced fast track a "net plus" for Silicon Valley. So much for balanced journalism.

Afterwards, the New Yawk Times, in its own "news analysis," struggled to come to terms with "The Impact." Since the Times had led the media cheering squads for NAFTA (or Nafta, as they prefer to call it), burying opponents in an avalanche of think-tank op-eds, this was no small task. But, as it turns out, the defeat of fast track will probably have very little effect, or subtle effects at worst. You see, we're the largest market in the world, and other countries will ignore us at their peril. And anyway, Mr. Clinton has negotiated well over a hundred trade agreements without fast track.

Of course, these are the exact same arguments that fast track opponents advanced in arguing that we needn't accept the Gingrich/Armey/Archer version of fast track. Fast track opponents aren't opposed to trade; they're opposed to trade policies that ignore human rights. But you'd have to look long and hard to find such subtle arguments in the Times before fast track went down in flames.

Both the media and the GOP are now attributing their defeat to a sneaky power play by "big labor bosses." But while labor did make a massive effort to derail the legislation, they were by no means alone. Environmental, human rights and consumer advocacy groups also worked hard to keep this from being crammed down our throats. And plenty of us ordinary citizens are fed up with the broken promises of NAFTA, and weren't shy about saying so. Believe it or not, I have never called my congressional representative for any reason in my life. But I called Rep. Pastor's office to urge him to vote no on fast track. An aide cheerfully told me that the Congressman hadn't made up his mind, but was leaning to no.

This time enough of us leaned to no to hand Gingrich and Clinton a major defeat. If that means Mr. Clinton's webbed foot is limping, so be it. This is a victory for the little folks and will make it considerably more difficult for the investing classes to sneak in the MAI without public debate, as they had hoped to do with NAFTA. Just to remind you, the MAI, coming up next spring, will allow multinational corporations to sue governments to nullify laws they don't like, and will remove all barriers to international capital taking over Third World countries. Let's all make a big stink over that one too, shall we?

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