In barely 18 months, the identity of the Democratic challenger to President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election will have been determined. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe's front-loading of the nominating process all but assures that the fight will be over before activists within the party and on its fringes have a chance to consider the candidates.
Thus, Americans who believe that the Democratic Party ought to offer a choice rather than an echo of the Bush administration's voodoo economics are already beginning to examine their options. Fortunately, the recent congressional votes on granting the Bush administration "fast track" authority to enter into secret negotiations toward the development of a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas offer a good place to begin the analysis.
This summer's fast track votes in the House and Senate presented congressional Democrats - a staggering number of whom are pondering presidential candidacies - with some stark choices. They could side with the Bush administration, multinational business interests and the Washington "think tanks" that are willing to go to war to defend American democracy and values - unless, of course, that democracy and those values pose a hindrance to nation-hopping corporations. Or they could side with the trade unions, environmental groups, farm organizations, consumer groups, churches and international human rights campaigners that represent the activist base not just of the Democratic Party but of the nation as a whole.
In the House, where fast track passed by an agonizingly narrow 215-212 margin, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., did not merely oppose fast track, he helped coordinate the opposition. Of the 212 votes against fast track, 183 came from the Democratic caucus.
Two other House members who are considering Democratic presidential runs, Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur, both of Ohio, were in the forefront of opposition to the legislation.
Kucinich, the Congressional Progressive Caucus chairman who is perhaps best known among progressives around the country for his outspoken criticism of the Bush administration's military policies, combined hometown concern for factory workers in the Cleveland area with a sophisticated analysis of international human rights and development issues to offer some of the most thoughtful criticism of the corporate free trade agenda. (Kucinich's "Action Center" on his congressional home page at www.house.gov/kucinich/action/trade.htm  explains fast track and related issues and provides links to Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, Friends of the Earth, the Economic Policy Institute and unions that have battled the corporate agenda on trade policy.)
Kaptur delivered the best speech during the House's fast track debate. An expert on trade policy who has battled the corporate agenda for two decades, Kaptur spoke with the confidence of someone who knew that what the Bush administration was asking for was wrong. Yes, of course, she said, passing fast track would begin a process that would cost Americans jobs and farms. But the damage to the developing world would be worse, she explained, describing a future for the poorest of the poor that would be defined by "corporate slums and global plantations with penny-wage jobs."
What of the Senate, where fast track won a 64-34 endorsement? Though that chamber is thick with Democratic presidential timber, few of Bush's prospective challengers stood tall. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota conspired with corporate Democrat Max Baucus of Montana to spring a surprise vote on the eve of Congress' summer break. Daschle whipped Democrats to back the Bush agenda on trade, voted for fast track and then joined in a grotesque celebration of the victory with Baucus.
Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, was an outspoken supporter of the legislation. Joining Lieberman and Daschle in backing fast track was Massachusetts' John Kerry. Delaware's Joe Biden voted against fast track, but cast procedural votes that aided Daschle's push for the legislation.
Indeed, of Senate Democrats who have been mentioned as potential presidential contenders, only three stood consistently in opposition to the Bush trade agenda: Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, the Senate's most thoughtful foe of the corporate free-trade agenda; Connecticut's Chris Dodd, a friend of labor with a long interest in human rights issues, North Carolina's John Edwards, whose homestate faces the threat of significant job losses in the textile industry; and, to the surprise of many who recall her role in a previous administration that fought for fast track, New York's Hillary Clinton.
As for the man who fancies himself the front-runner for the 2004 nomination: On the Sunday after the Senate vote, Al Gore wrote a New York Times op-ed piece in which he condemned the Bush administration's failings and called for Democrats to stand tough against corporate power. Amazingly, however, Gore's article made no mention of fast track or the trade debate.