In terms of economic consequences, the new trade agreement with Peru istrivial. In political terms, however, it delivers an ominous message.When faced with a choice between money and their own rank-and-file, theDemocratic leaders in the House will go with the money, even if itrequires them to pass legislation with Republican votes. Even if amajority of their own caucus is opposed. Even if it means handing theshrinking president, George W. Bush, a rare legislative victory.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled it off today at considerable costto her own reputation. How different are the new Dems in Congress? Notvery, it seems. That is a reasonable interpretation of events and theSpeaker is now stuck with the burden of disproving it.
Pelosi's lieutenants "whipped" the party caucus energetically and didbetter than expected--109 Dems voting for the Peru trade bill, 116 Demsagainst.
But Pelosi still winds up looking like the great triangulator, BillClinton, who managed to pass important trade measures like NAFTA only byrelying on Republican votes over his own party. Pelosi will come toregret the comparison, I suspect, because it suggests she is unreliableas a party leader, at least if you thought Democrats were going tochange things. On the Peru vote, she played big-money contributors andthe opposition party against her own troops. Clinton used to do thisbrilliantly with lots of soulful rhetoric extolling his own courage.Pelosi and team are not so adept.
Why would she depart from her usual form? After all, Pelosi normallywon't bring an issue to the House floor unless assured of overwhelmingconsensus among her members.
Her explanation: "I don't want this party to be viewed as an anti-tradeparty." That is the same simple-minded non sequitur the multinationalestablishment always invoke to scold Democrats. None of the Democraticdissenters are arguing for "no trade." They are trying to change therules of trade so US workers are not the first victims of newagreements. Pelosi argued that the Peru agreement includes an importantreform--stronger language in support of labor and environmentalstandards--and it does. But is there perhaps another reason why shepushed so hard against her own caucus?
Steven R.Weisman of the New York Times gently suggested one. "Democratsfrom the prosperous areas of the East and West Coast have becomeespecially responsive, many Democrats say, to the desire of Wall Streetand the high technology, health, pharmaceutical and entertainmentindustries to expand their sales overseas," Weisman wrote. "Theseindustries have also become major Democratic contributors."
She did it for the money. That is a more plausible explanation thaninsider arguments over the fine print in an inconsequential new tradebill. The big-money sectors are anxious to squelch the new critics ofglobalization in Democratic ranks before they can gain momentum inCongress. Looking toward financing the 2008 elections, Pelosi chose tostand with the money guys and dismiss the political backlash againstglobalization building across the country. She is probably bettingpeople aren't paying attention to such trivial matters.
But I wouldn't count on that. She is liable to lose her bet as economicconditions worsen for folks in coming months. People are likely to getmore anxious and angry than they already are. One thing Democrats shouldnot try to tell voters in '08 is they are the party of change. Mightyield more yawns and snickers than votes.