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Published on Saturday, May 27, 2000 in the Madison Capital Times
China Deal Will Cost Democrats In November
by John Nichols
WASHINGTON -- Last week was rich in political irony.

Consider the two "big ticket'' events of Wednesday:

In the afternoon, at the behest of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, 73 Democrats in the House of Representatives broke faith with party loyalists in the labor, environmental, farm and human rights movements to tip the congressional balance in favor of granting permanent most-favored nation trading status to China.

That evening, in a grotesque orgy of campaign finance excess, Democrats collected more than $26 million from special-interest givers.

What's wrong with these pictures?

When November comes, these two developments are likely to cancel one another out, and the impact is not likely to be good for Al Gore's presidential prospects or for the Democrats' campaign to retake the House and Senate.

By abandoning traditional allies and acting like Republicans, "the party of working men and women'' may be able to collect a wealth of campaign money. But it does so at the expense of the campaign foot soldiers and progressive voters who are absolutely necessary to any scenario for winning on Nov. 7.

Want proof?

Consider the 1994 election campaign -- arguably the most disastrous for Democrats since the debacle of 1946. Democrats controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress going into the 1994 vote and they were able to use the power of incumbency to claim a host of fund-raising and organizational advantages. Yet the Clinton administration had insulted core Democratic constituencies -- especially labor -- by aggressively pushing the Wall Street-sponsored North American Free Trade Agreement.

The 1994 election saw a dramatic drop in turnout among members of union households, collapsing Democratic support in traditional areas of strength and leading to the narrow Republican victories that established conservative hegemony in Congress.

In 1996 and 1998, exit polls show, turnout among members from union households was up, and Democrats began climbing out of the hole they'd put themselves in.

Now comes the 2000 election, perhaps the most critical test the Democratic Party will face in the postwar era. But will Democrats have the enthusiastic support of working men and women on Nov. 7?

Don't bet on it. The China trade vote was the most well-defined economic issue for working people since NAFTA. Polls show the issue resonated not just with union members, but with two other key Democratic constituencies -- environmentalists and social justice activists who care deeply about international human rights issues.

When the leadership of the Democratic Party -- most particularly, Vice President Gore -- chose Wall Street over working Americans, they made exactly the same mistake as they did in the NAFTA fight prior to the 1994 election. And savvy observers fear the same result.

"I fear it will also limit the enthusiasm of labor voters,'' Brad Bannon, a Democratic pollster, says of high-profile support by Clinton and Gore for the business-sponsored Chinese trade initiative.

Former Clinton adviser Dick Morris is even more blunt; reviewing similarities between the NAFTA and China fights, he says that, for Democrats, "November could be a nightmare.''

For Gore, the nightmare has begun.

Steve Yokich, president of the 1.3 million-member United Auto Workers union, goes even further, saying that in light of Gore's decision to side with "multinational corporations against workers here and abroad'' in the China fight, his union may consider endorsing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for president. "It's time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates.''

Friends of the Earth, one of America's most respected environmental groups, is seriously considering an endorsement of Nader as well.

For Gore, those developments have to be frightening. But even more politically terrifying may be the word from people who are actually supporting the vice president's campaign. George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers union, has endorsed Gore. But after the China vote, he says he may have a hard time mobilizing his members -- who will be devastated by the trade deal -- to get out and vote for Democratic candidates.

It feels, says Becker, a lot like 1994.

2000 The Capital Times


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