Death-Bed Conversion

Death-Bed Conversion

Death-Bed Conversion

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
June 28 2000 9:00 PM

Death-Bed Conversion

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Who would have thought that Al "Ozone Man" Gore would have to worry about a challenge from the Green Party? And who would have thought that the United Auto Workers would be flirting with a presidential candidate who doesn't own a car? But, thanks to Ralph Nader, both are now realities.

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Gore may be wondering what he did to deserve such a bizarre twist of fate. But the fact is that this kind of threat was foreseeable, and the Clinton administration could have done much to dampen it.   

It has long been obvious that the Democratic Party, with its labor constituency, has at least as big an anti-globalization faction as the Republican Party. It was only through a fluke of history that in 1996 the only visible anti-globalization presidential candidate was a conservative, Pat Buchanan. Sooner or later a version of Buchanan without the conservatism and without the overtones of racism—a version that labor unions could stomach—was bound to gain prominence.

What could Clinton and Gore have done if they had seen this coming? One reason union members can contemplate voting for Nader even if it hurts Gore is their perception that, on economic policy, Gore isn't much different from George W. Bush anyway. Both men are free traders, so what's the dif? Gore would now have two plausible answers to that question if it weren't for some bad decisions on the part of the Clinton administration.

Plausible answer No. 1: Gore could in theory say, "Unlike George W. Bush, I will use the judicial machinery of the World Trade Organization to defend the interests of American workers." Unfortunately, the Clinton record suggests otherwise.

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Granted, the administration has taken American grievances to the WTO. Indeed, in the most famous example, it pursued its cause with a vengeance: Having won a case against the European Union, the administration deemed the EU's compliance with the ruling unsatisfactory and imposed retaliatory tariffs, causing observers to fret about a trans-Atlantic trade war. And what American export was Clinton defending at such great cost? Bananas—an American product only in the sense that they're grown in Latin America. The U.S. workers Clinton was protecting were a few Chiquita executives who had steered campaign donations in his direction. This is the sort of thing Nader presumably has in mind when he says of Bush and Gore: "They're Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They're both tools of global corporations."

The banana escapade, though an extreme example, illustrates a larger pattern. If you look at cases that Clinton has brought before the WTO, you won't find many that centrally involve the interests of blue-collar workers. The administration has forcefully backed ranchers (who are pro-free-trade with or without such help), musicians and actors (on intellectual property issues), and pharmaceutical companies (whose manufacturing costs are a trivial fraction of their products' prices). Major support for old-fashioned assembly-line industries has been rare.

Plausible answer No. 2: Gore could in theory say, "Unlike George W. Bush, I favor trade agreements that set labor and environmental standards which developing nations must meet." In fact, Gore does now say roughly that. Unfortunately, Clinton's record doesn't back him up. In 1997, Clinton sought fast-track negotiating authority from Congress. As John Judis notes in his excellent book The Paradox of American Democracy, Clinton was initially receptive to labor's request that the fast-track bill give him the power to negotiate labor and environmental accords. But when Republican legislators and business lobbyists balked, he caved. The bill he sent to Congress, lacking this provision, so upset organized labor that it didn't pass. (Had he sent up the version that labor favored, it probably would have passed. When push came to shove, industrialists would have preferred lower tariffs with an asterisk to no lowered tariffs at all.)

For that matter, as Judis notes, Clinton had done much the same thing in his first term. He'd initially planned to put meaningful labor provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement, but he gutted them once business lobbyists started whining. (Myopic labor leaders share in the blame; they were more interested in derailing NAFTA than improving it.)

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After the Seattle WTO protests, Clinton saw the light yet again. He said emphatically that the WTO should start addressing labor and environmental issues. And Gore agrees. Well, talk is cheap. 

As globalization proceeds, the collective nationalist backlash—Buchanan voters plus Nader voters—could get big. The question facing Republicans and Democrats would then be which party can do a better job of keeping its nationalist-leaning factions on board. I hope the answer is Democrats. But that will mean showing environmentalists and union members that sovereignty-sapping supranational bodies needn't be right wing; there is such a thing as left-leaning world governance. (And it can assume a surprising variety of forms.) Those of us who have been preaching this sermon for years are glad that Clinton and Gore are now nominally on board. But, for purposes of hanging on to the White House, their conversion may have come too late. 

Speaking of Clinton mistakes: On Sunday the New York Times Magazine had a spooky piece about Pakistan's thousands of madrasas, schools that immerse boys and young men in Islam and often have a militant bent. Reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, visiting one of them, asked the students, "Who wants to see Osama Bin Laden armed with nuclear weapons?" The reaction: "Every hand in the room shot up."

This is a reminder of what a bad idea it was for Clinton to launch that cruise missile attack on Bin Laden in retaliation for the African embassy bombings. As a wise man wrote six months ago in an influential periodical, "Even with a bunch of terrorists conveniently assembled in a single spot, the cruise-missile strike in Afghanistan was self-defeating: It no doubt guaranteed Osama Bin Laden 10 new recruits for every terrorist who was killed."