When Paul Wellstone opted out of the 2000 presidential race, he fretted that trade policy would not be debated in the Democratic primaries and that the party would run a November campaign that failed to address blue-collar concerns about the damage done to the manufacturing sector by the North American Free Trade Agreement and freer trade with China. Wellstone was right to worry; Al Gore and Bill Bradley echoed George W. Bush’s free-trade stances, and once Gore was nominated, his failure to distinguish himself on trade undermined his populist appeal to union workers in battleground states like Ohio, Missouri and West Virginia–all of which the Democrats lost for the first time since the 1980s.

What a difference four years makes. In the contest for the 2004 Democratic nomination, no issue except the Iraq war divides Democrats as does trade. Predictably, Joe Lieberman, favorite of the corporate-sponsored Democratic Leadership Council, preaches the Bush line. Yet it is John Kerry, traditionally a more skeptical free trader than Lieberman, who is the noisiest critic of Democrats who oppose “race to the bottom” trade policies that harm workers in the United States and abroad. Desperate to regain ground lost to Howard Dean, Kerry attacked the Vermonter for saying trade agreements must be reworked to protect workers and the environment. Dean’s approach “would mean we couldn’t sell a single car anywhere in the world,” Kerry said in Detroit. That’s wrong; Dean’s stance, which roughly parallels that of the United Auto Workers and most Democrats in Congress, is hardly a recipe for auto-industry decline. Even Bill Clinton told a 2000 World Economic Forum gathering that labor and environmental issues had to be treated more seriously in trade agreements.

What’s bizarre about the Kerry-Dean dust-up is that both backed NAFTA in 1993–as did Senators Bob Graham and Carol Moseley Braun. Dean and Kerry also united for normalized trade with China and supported fast-track legislation designed to hasten development of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Now that Dean is positioning himself to compete in Midwestern states hard hit by factory closings, he complains that “our free trade policies have also had the effect of hollowing out our industrial capacity and, most worrisome, undermining our own middle class.” Backers say Dean is evolving. But watch out, Clinton made fair-trade noises while seeking labor endorsements in 1992 only to emerge as NAFTA’s champion in 1993.

One thing is certain: Dean’s new line is another example of his feeling the pulse of the party. A strong fair-trade stance sets him up to compete with Dick Gephardt, who led House opposition to NAFTA and other Clinton trade deals, for union votes; and with Dennis Kucinich, who marched in the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and says he would guide the United States out of NAFTA and the WTO. While Dean has less claim to the “fair trader” mantle than Gephardt or Kucinich, Kerry’s attack will help Dean sell himself to unions as the fallback candidate should Gephardt fade. And what of Wesley Clark? As on so many issues, he’s still getting his bearings. Clark said in September, “I believe in fair trade, not free trade. We need labor and environmental standards.” But union activists note with concern that the first Clinton Cabinet member signed on to the Clark team was former Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, point man for NAFTA.

Best Line on Trade: “We can’t act like just because something is trade, that also makes it right. African-Americans are here on a bad trade policy,” says the Rev. Al Sharpton.