U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer, who broke with other industrial-state Democrats to back free trade measures such as NAFTA, suffered a stunning defeat in an Ohio’s May 7 Democratic primary. And, despite the best efforts of Sawyer’s old friends in the business-funded Democratic Leadership Council to try and explain away the eight-term incumbent’s rejection at the hands of home-state voters, the message from Ohio was a blunt signal for Democrats who side with Wall Street against Main Street.
Trade issues have long been views by labor and environmental activists as the canary-in-the-coal mine measures of corporate dominance over Congress. Most, though not all, Republicans back the free-trade agenda pushed by major multinational corporations and Republican and Democratic presidents. Most Democrats oppose that agenda. Since the early 1990s, trade votes in the House of Representatives have tended to be close, however. That has meant that the margins of victory for the corporate trade agenda has often been delivered by a floating pool of Democrats — including Sawyer — who have been willing to vote with free-trade Republicans on key issues such as NAFTA, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and normalization of trade relations with China. Most of the free-trade Democrats are associated with the New Democrat Coalition, a DLC-tied House group that was formed in 1997 with Sawyer as a charter member.
Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, says Sawyer’s defeat must be read as very bad news for those free-trade Democrats.
“If all you do is hang around at think tanks in Washington, you might think that everyone loves free trade. But, when you get outside Washington, you start running into Americans who have seen factories closed and communities kicked in the teeth by the North American Free Trade Agreement and all these other trade bills,” explains Woodall, one of the savviest followers of trade fights in Washington and around the country. “Tom Sawyer’s defeat ought to be a wake-up call for Democrats who think they can get away with voting for a free-trade agenda that does not protect workers, farmers and the environment. Tom Sawyer found out on Tuesday that there are consequences.”
Of course, there will still be Democrats who don’t quite “get it.” Even as Thursday’s edition of Roll Call, the Capitol Hill-insider publication, carried a Page One headline reading “NAFTA Stance Hurt Sawyer,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., were cutting a deal to give President Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreements that critics describe as “NAFTA on steroids.”
But if some top Democrats were having trouble figuring out the politics of trade, Sawyer top aide was no longer suffering under any delusions. The congressman’s chief of staff, Dan Lucas, said after his boss lost: “The big issue was NAFTA.” And the big loser was the argument that, given a choice, Democrats from blue-collar districts will stick with members of Congress who vote the Wall Street line on trade issues. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Howard Wolfson delicately explained, “(In) some districts in this country a free trade position is not helpful.”