It is no secret that grassroots Democrats around the country oppose the free-trade regimen advocated by the Bush administration and the corporate lobbyists who have shaped the debate on trade issues inside the beltway.
The Democratic party's core constituencies well understand that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the normalization of trade relations with China and other corporate free-trade initiatives have led to the shuttering of American factories, depressed prices for family farmers and the use of trade policy to assault laws protecting the environment in the U.S. and abroad. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that NAFTA has cost at least 360,000 Americans their jobs -- and that is merely the easiest measure of the impact of free-trade agreements that allow multinational corporations, as opposed to citizens and their elected officials, to write the rules for protection of workers, farmers and the environment.
Recognizing the flaws in a corporate-dictated free-trade system, groups with a history of good relations with the Democratic party have been among the loudest foes of the Bush administration's attempts to gain Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that critics refer to as "NAFTA on steroids."
The AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions have actively opposed Fast Track, as have the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups, and the National Farmers Union and organizations that represent family farmers as opposed to corporate agribusiness interests. So too have human rights and religious groups concerned about poverty and social justice in the U.S. and internationally.
In the House of Representatives, where Fast Track passed by a 215-214 margin in December, 194 Democrats opposed the legislation while just 23 backed it.
In the Senate, however, where Democrats are in charge, a marginally modified version of the Fast Track legislation won passage Thursday by a 66-30 margin. While 25 Democrats opposed Fast Track, 24 Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats -- Vermont's Jim Jeffords -- backed the legislation. (The last Democrat, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye missed the vote.)
So who were the free-trade Democrats in the Senate? Many were southern conservatives such as Georgia's Zell Miller, but many more were Democrats who portray themselves as friends of labor, family farmers, environmental groups and other Democratic constituencies that lobbied against Fast Track. Indeed, several of the Fast Track-backing Democrats are potential contenders for the party's 2004 presidential nomination.
Among those voting for Fast Track was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D- South Dakota. Joining Daschle in voting for the measure was Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, who in recent weeks has stepped up efforts to position himself as a 2004 contender, North Carolina's John Edwards and Delaware's Joe Biden. Even Massachusetts' John Kerry, who sought to add a good amendment to the legislation, ultimately joined the vast majority of Senate Republicans in backing Fast Track.
Among senators whose names have been floated as potential 2004 Democratic presidential contenders, only Connecticut's Chris Dodd and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold voted against Fast Track. They were joined by another senator whose name is often mentioned but who regularly takes herself out of contention -- Hillary Clinton.
Fast Track was amended sufficiently in the Senate to mean that it will go to a House-Senate conference committee, where a compromise version of the legislation is expected to be be crafted and then sent back for votes in both chambers. Fast Track could yet get beat in the House, where opposition could actually grow in an election year.
Most of the Democratic senators who harbor presidential ambitions are no doubt hoping that the House will clean up the Fast Track mess. Then they will be able to continue to collect contributions from corporate interests that want unregulated free trade, while publicly presenting themselves as contenders who are in touch with the party's base.
The Democratic party's base would do well to remember how the voting went when the Senate could have derailed Fast Track, however. It is a good measure of how reliable a Democratic president might be the issues that workers, farmers, environmentalists and supporters of international human rights take a lot more seriously than do many Democratic senators.