House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demonstrated admirable shrewdness in the fight she provoked with her own Democrats over approving new trade agreements for George W. Bush. She backed off.
The conflict is not entirely settled yet, but Pelosi wisely decided to defuse the intense anger in the Democratic caucus rather than try to bull through it. In pursuit of unity, she has shown respect for the new folks elected last fall and other rank-and-file Democrats determined to challenge the free-trade status quo and to change it. That is good for them. And good for her.
The surest sign Pelosi is moving in the right direction are the hostile rebukes from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. "Trade Double-Cross," said the headline on the Journal‘s editorial. "House Democrats go protectionist." This is nonsense, but typical of the Journal’s slanderous style. Pelosi is demeaned as a pawn of organized labor and lefty extremists. Makes you wonder if the doctrinaire right-wing Journal could get any worse with Rupert Murdoch as the owner.
This intramural conflict started in May when Pelosi, arm-in-arm with Ways and Means chair Charles Rangel, abruptly announced their "historic deal" with the Bush White House . Dems would approve new trade agreements with Peru and Panama that include much improved labor rights provisions and possibly two other agreements with Colombia and South Korea. The pro-business atmospherics suggested Pelosi might even be persuaded to renew "fast track" negotiating authority for this president .
Democrats were rightly alarmed. Doing a deal with Bush and the multinational lobby suggested Pelosi and senior colleagues were ignoring the rebellious content of last Fall’s election and prepared to put the new voices in their place. At a time when Bush’s base is imploding, it did not seem smart politics to splinter the Democratic party on such a pivotal matter.
The leadership was pursuing business-as-usual, Washington style, in the name of accomplishing something, however flawed. In fact, they were embracing the same failed model for trade agreements that produced horrendous losses of US manufacturing production and jobs during the last fifteen years. The model includes the scandalous special privileges for multinational capital and corporations, the so-called "investor-state" provisions that began with Bill Clinton’s NAFTA.
Pelosi pulled back with a series of assurances. The Panama and Peru agreements need more work, she allowed, and will be postponed until the Fall. For different reasons, Colombia and South Korea were not going to get a vote (Colombia’s government is associated with the paramilitary thugs who have murdered hundreds of labor leaders). "Fast track" is not going to get renewed–not for this president anyway.
The leaders left some important issues dangling, but Pelosi responded substantially to suggestions from AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and Leo Gerard, president of the steelworkers union, for how to avoid a bloody battle in which nobody wins but Republicans.
If they are wise, the party leaders will let the Peru-Panama agreements die quietly without a roll call. The economic stakes are trivial, but the principle is not. What is the point of giving George Bush a cheap victory when half or more of the Democratic caucus will likely vote against their own leaders? Not a good start for a party trying to reinvent itself and restore its reputation with the public.
A truce now leaves the substantial issues on the table for the real fight later. Democrats in Congress seem divided almost along generational lines. Those who endured all the hard years in the wilderness as the impotent minority naturally want to legislate now that they can. The newcomers who want big change are understandably suspicious of incremental measures that continue down the wrong road.
For Pelosi and other leaders, the choice is about more than emotional loyalties to the old guard. The new crowd represents the party’s potential for real growth and a working majority. Lose them and you lose the future.