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CAFTA Vote Outs "Bush Democrats" | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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CAFTA Vote Outs "Bush Democrats"

The Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was such a high priority for the Bush administration that the president personally lobbied Congressional Republicans on the issue Wednesday, passed the House by two votes.

Those two votes came from members who can best be described as "Bush Democrats."

The final vote on CAFTA was 217-215 in favor of the deal, the closest margin possible -- as a tie vote would have prevented approval.

Of the 217 supporters of the bill, 202 were Republicans and 15 were Democrats.

Of the 215 opponents of the bill, 187 were Democrats, 27 were Republicans and one was an independent, Vermont's Bernie Sanders.

The Republicans who split with the president withstood immense pressure from the White House and corporate lobbyists in order to take a stand with the organized labor, environmental, farm and international human rights groups that opposed the agreement. They were so courageous and so consistent in their determination to block the president's agenda that, during the floor debate, Representative Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat who led opposition to CAFTA, specifically praised Republicans such as Idaho's Butch Otter and North Carolina's Walter Jones for their efforts.

On the other hand, the Democrats who supported Bush's agenda faced little or no pressure from the White House. Nor did they show anything akin to courage or consistency. They simply voted with the White House because, either they agree with the president's misguided approach to global trade or they thought they could trade their votes for big contributions from the corporate interests that see the NAFTA/CAFTA model of free trade as an opportunity to improve business bottom lines at the expense of workers, the environment and communities in the U.S. and Latin America.

Let's give the Bush Democrats the benefit of the doubt and accept that they actually support the corporate model for trade that Bush backs. This puts them at odds with mainstream Democrats on what can only be described as the most fundamental of economic issues -- as trade deals get into the core questions of whether American workers will have jobs, whether communities can maintain their industrial bases, whether government has the power to protect the environment, and whether the U.S. government will be a willing co-conspirator in the exploitation of men, women and children in developing countries.

So, unless they are crooks who trade their votes for campaign checks, the Bush Democrats are supporters of a corporate agenda that Representative Robert Menendez -- a New Jersey Democrat who has a long history of involvement with Latin American affairs -- explained during the CAFTA debate would harm U.S. workers and farmers while plunging Central American countries deeper into poverty and causing more Latin Americans to migrate to the U.S.

At the least, this suggests that the Bush Democrats -- Melissa Bean of Illinois, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Norm Dicks of Washington, Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, William Jefferson of Louisiana, Jim Matheson of Utah, Gregory Meeks of New York, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Jim Moran of Virginia, Solomon Ortiz of Texas, Ike Skelton of Missouri, Vic Snyder of Arkansas, John Tanner of Tennessee, and Edolphus Towns of New York -- are on the wrong side of history, and of humanity.

But does this one vote, necessarily, make them Bush Democrats?

Let's look at where they lined up on other economic issues that matter to the Bush White House?

When the so-called "bankruptcy reform" bill came up earlier this year, the White House and Wall Street favored a "yes" vote to make it harder for working Americans who get hit with a medical emergency or some other form of crisis to get back on their feet financially. Twelve of the pro-CAFTA Democrats -- Bean, Cooper, Cuellar, Hinojosa, Jefferson, Matheson, Meeks, Moore, Moran, Ortiz, Skelton and Tanner -- voted with the White House.

On the so-called "tort-reform" legislation that passed the House earlier this year, and which will make it dramatically harder for individuals who are wronged by corporations to hold them accountable, nine of pro-CAFTA Democrats voted with the White House and Wall Street: Bean, Cooper, Cuellar, Hinojosa, Matheson, Meeks, Moore, Moran and Tanner.

But what about other issues that are top White House priorities, such as the war in Iraq.

Of the pro-CAFTA Democrats, six backed the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq: Dicks, Jefferson, Matheson, Moore, Skelton and Tanner, while another four were either not serving in the House or did not vote: Bean, Cooper, Cuellar and Ortiz.

When the House voted on California Democrat Lynn Woolsey's May, 2005 amendment that sought to begin taking steps to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, only Hinojosa, Jefferson, Meeks, Moran and Towns voted in favor of seeking an exit strategy. (On the question of whether to hand the Bush administration another $82 billion for the war, only Meeks and Towns voted for holding the White House accountable with regards to the war.)

So where does this leave us:

On fundamental economic issues, Bean, Cooper, Cuellar, Hinojosa, Matheson, Meeks, Moore, Moran and Tanner are consistent Bush Democrats.

On a broader array of issues, Hinojosa, Meeks and Moran move off the list.

But it is safe to say that, whether the issue is peace or prosperity, Bean, Cooper, Cuellar, Matheson, Moore and Tanner take the side of a White House that has consistently been at odds with both those goals.

Progressives in the labor, environmental, human rights, consumer and peace movements will have to decide where to draw the line -- either by withdrawing active support or by aggressively promoting Democratic primary or third-party general election challenges -- with regards to the Bush Democrats. Some will decide, as key unions already have, to withhold backing of the 15 House Democrats who backed CAFTA.

Others will focus their anger on the nine who, using measures suggested by activist and writer David Sirota, are the most consistent backers of Bush's corporations-first economic agenda.

It is notable that, of the six members who are with Bush when it comes to the economy and the war, Bean, Matheson and Moore come from swing districts where they are likely to be extremely vulnerable in the fall of 2006. Cooper, Cuellar and Tanner come from more decidedly Democratic districts where they might well be more vulnerable to Democratic primary challenges.

Of the rest of the pro-CAFTA 15, Dicks, Hinojosa, Jefferson, Meeks, Moran, Ortiz, Skelton, Snyder and Towns come from districts that trend Democratic -- although Skelton's Missouri district and Snyder's Arkansas district, could be swing turf.

By most measures, however, Dicks, Hinojosa, Jefferson, Meeks, Moran, Ortiz and Towns represent districts where an economic populist challenge in a Democrat primary could be significant.

The safe bet is that, in the next Congress, most of these members will still be present. But if even one or two Bush Democrats fall, either because of their CAFTA vote or because of a broader pattern of backing the White House on economic and foreign affairs issues, the president will have to look deeper into his own Republican caucus for support. He won't be able to rely on the Bush Democrats, as was the case with CAFTA.

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