New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama desperately want Democrats to believe that they are serious about serving the American people as the next president of the United States.
But the party faithful – along with the independent and even Republican voters who may be asked to consider these contenders – would be well advised to distrust any claim of conscientiousness from this pair.
Clinton and Obama -- along with fellow Democrats Joe Biden, of Delaware, and Chris Dodd, of Connecticut, and Republican John McCain, of Arizona -- are not even serious about serving in their current positions as members of the U.S. Senate.
When the Senate voted Tuesday of the Peru Trade Agreement, a critical test of U.S. economic policy that raised fundamental questions with regard to how this country will frame its economic ties to hemispheric neighbors, the five senators who would be president were the only members of the chamber who missed the vote.
If we are to trust their statements with regard to the issue: Biden and Dodd would have voted against the Peru deal, while Obama and Clinton would have supported it.
But senators who don't bother to show up get the out of being able to rewrite history – including their own statements. And that appears to be more important to Clinton, Obama and their fellow senator-candidates than doing the job to which they were elected.
Would the presence of Obama, Clinton or the other contenders have changed the practical result of the vote? No. The Senate approved the Peru deal by a 77-18 majority, meaning that, in the words of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, "Congress (has) passed another job-killing trade agreement that will shut down our factories, hurt our communities, and send more unsafe food into our kitchens and consumer products into our children's bedrooms."
But if the standard that is applied to senators seeking the presidency is that only their positions on close votes matter, then Clinton would have been wise to skip the fall 2002 vote on whether to permit President Bush to attack Iraq. Then, she could have played the issue different ways, depending on the crowd she was talking to – just as Clinton, and to an even greater extent Obama, cynically portray themselves as corporate critics when they are in front of labor and farm audiences and corporate allies when they are shaking down Wall Street donors.
The fact is that the votes senators choose to skip tell us just as much about them as do the votes they cast.
Clinton, Obama, Biden, Dodd and McCain all have track records on trade issues that have tended to place them on the side of multinational conglomerates and investors rather than workers and farmers in the United States and abroad.
They have all taken too many wrong stands in the clearest and most meaningful economic debate facing the country today. Notably, their positions on past trade tests – and their failure to recognize the significance of Tuesday's Peru vote -- put them at odds with key voters in battleground states such as Ohio, which the Democratic presidential nominee will almost certainly need to win in November, 2008.
As Ohio Senator Brown, arguably the Senate's savviest critic of our country's misguided approach to trade, explained, "The trade polices set in Washington, and negotiated across the globe, have a direct impact on places like Toledo and Steubenville, Cleveland and Hamilton. And that is why voters in my state of Ohio, and across the country, sent a message loud and clear last November, demanding a new direction for our trade policy."
Brown, like the other freshmen Democrats elected to the Senate in 2006, understands something that Clinton and Obama are still missing."Our current trade model chases short-term profits for the few, at the expense of long-term prosperity, health and safety for the many. It's a model that doesn't work. Look at our trade deficit, look at manufacturing job losses, look at wage stagnation, look at imported product recalls, look at forced labor, child labor, slave labor. Look what it does to communities," says the senator, who made changing trade policy a central issue in his successful challenge to Republican Senator Mike DeWine, as did other Democratic winners such as Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McMaskill of Missouri, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, John Tester of Montana and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island – all of whom opposed the Peru deal.
Senators who have actually faced the voters in key states in recent elections share Brown's position that, "We want trade and plenty of it – but under rules that raise standards and ensure American exports have a lasting and sustainable market of consumers. Trade can be a development tool. The American people want a pro-trade, pro-development, pro-labor and forward-looking approach."
That's the sort of statement that a Democratic presidential nominee should be making next year.
But neither Clinton nor Obama will be in a position to deliver the message -- at least not to any voter who expects more than empty rhetoric.
The Peru vote gave both senators a chance to send a clear signal that they understand the need to set a new course on trade. That signal would have helped to distinguish them from any of the likely Republican nominees. But they skipped the chance to make it. As such, Clinton and Obama are stuck with their records – which, at least on this issue, mark them as unacceptable choices.
Hopefully, Iowa voters, who are hearing so much from Clinton and Obama these days, will notice that both of the apparent frontrunners failed to stand with their own senator, Tom Harkin, a one-time proponent of free trade who saw the light some years ago and who on Tuesday voted against the Peru deal.