As the dust starts to settle from the historic election of our nation’s first African-American president and first president who ran on fair trade, we have some time to contemplate other impressive changes voters brought to Congress. At least 41 new fair-traders were elected to House and Senate seats, which represent a net gain of 33 in Congress’ overall economic justice contingent. This comes on top of the 37 net fair-trade pick-ups in the 2006 congressional elections. These new members campaigned to oppose further NAFTA-style agreements and advocate for positive alternatives that ensure widely shared prosperity. Obama himself made many fair-trade commitments, including a pledge to replace “fast track” trade negotiating authority, renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, and oppose a NAFTA-like pact with Colombia.
In 2009, the U.S. government will be squarely in the hands of people who have contemplated the global economic architecture built up through the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush, and found it fundamentally flawed. Or at least they have realized that an overwhelming majority of Americans have had it with the current “race to the bottom” trade and globalization status quo — and are systematically voting for those who join them in demanding change and against those who want more of the same.
Either way, this is a good thing not only for the millions of people living in this country who have their jobs offshored, wages stagnate, and environmental and consumer protections gutted by current trade policies, but for the billions of people worldwide who have suffered under our country’s worldwide exportation of this model.
Public Citizen’s report, Fair Trade Gets an Upgrade, listed positions on trade for all 130 candidates in competitive or open-seat races, with an accompanying website displaying a cornucopia of TV ads calling for trade reform. The demand for a new approach to trade and globalization has hit a tipping point, 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.
This includes Democrat Jeff Merkley in Oregon, who shattered conventional political wisdom by winning a Senate seat after running as a fair-trader in the Pacific Northwest. He made the failure of U.S. trade and globalization policies a top focus of his campaign, which ran seven paid trade ads to defeat 100% anti-fair trader and GOP incumbent Gordon Smith. Democrat Kay Hagan also used seven different trade-focused ads in North Carolina to beat GOP incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole. And, the defeat of the two representatives who provided the two final votes to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) — Representatives Phil English (R-PA), a senior House Ways and Means Committee member, and Robin Hayes (R-NC) 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, including Walter Jones (R-NC) and Representative-elect Steve Austria (R-OH), beat back tough primary and general election challenges by campaigning on a fair-trade platform. 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, supporting candidates in 17 states. The trade issue proved to be so powerful that we found the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) running attack ads against Republicans in races where the Democrat had an anti-fair trade voting record, such as in Florida and Indiana.
Public Citizen’s report also reviews the extended national “anti-NAFTA-off” that consumed the Democratic presidential primaries, with Obama and Hillary Clinton competing to be most critical of the pact pushed by former President Bill Clinton. Presidential primary candidates provided written commitments on an array of trade and globalization reform issues that were never a part of past presidential races. 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:
We will not negotiate bilateral trade pacts that 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 a path the American public has taken for years. Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that a “free trade agreement” has had a negative effect on their families. Majorities oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement across every demographic, with Catholic, swing, independent, and Hispanic voters among the blocs most opposed to NAFTA. Republican 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.”
Just the Beginning
As inspiring as these electoral changes are, the fight to change the current globalization model has only just begun. There will be powerful pressures from within the Beltway and Wall Street for Obama and the new lawmakers to accept Bush’s hangover NAFTA-expansion agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
In recent days, both The New York Times and The Washington Post editorialized that Congress should approve the Colombia pact. Moreover, the press has reported that the bilateral deal — which official U.S. government projections show would increase the U.S. trade deficit — is one of the few issues Bush has raised in talks with the incoming Obama administration. That such harmful policies would be raised in the context of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression shows the level of anti-fair trade determination in many elite quarters.
Moreover, there are the ongoing attempts in the dead-again, alive-again Doha Round to expand the World Trade Organization’s antidemocratic strictures to ever more aspects of our lives: farm and food policy, essential services, industrial development, and yes, more financial services deregulation and privatization.
Within the United States, perhaps the most persuasive and pragmatic argument for overhauling the global regime is that doing so is necessary for tackling Obama’s urgent domestic priorities. As we showed in earlier reports, the WTO and NAFTA-style trade agreements must be shrunk, sunk, or otherwise renegotiated to create the policy space to implement Democrats’ programs for climate change, health care, financial re-regulation, and food and product safety. Changes to the current rules are needed to avoid urgently needed domestic reforms from being subject to challenge or sanction in the unaccountable trade tribunals established by these pacts.
The good news is that the next occupant of the White House — and a growing number of lawmakers — are now on the record as favoring changes to the NAFTA-WTO model. Come January, Americans will have to be relentless in reminding them of these commitments.