U.S. Sen. John Kerry still looks like a reasonably viable Democratic contender for the presidency. A decorated Vietnam veteran who has served several terms in the U.S. Senate, he has the right resume.
Unfortunately, Kerry has a penchant for getting the really important issues wrong. For instance, he voted for the October 2002 resolution that authorized President Bush to launch a "pre-emptive" war against Iraq. Kerry, who was critical of the administration's rush to war before and after that critical vote, just couldn't get the courage up to join U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and the chairs of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees in voting "no." That failure of will cost Kerry dearly among grass-roots Democrats, providing an opening that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has exploited relentlessly - and effectively.
Now Kerry is making an equally significant mistake. The issue is trade and, as with the war, Kerry is trying to talk a good line while putting himself on precisely the wrong side of the debate.
Kerry is attacking Dean for supporting fair trade proposals that would require U.S. trading partners to establish basic labor and environmental standards. "Governor Dean has said repeatedly that America should not trade with countries that haven't reached our own environmental and labor standards," Kerry grumbled in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club. "I will assure strong labor and environmental standards. But his approach would mean we couldn't sell a single car anywhere in the developing world."
The problem with Kerry's argument is that he is simply wrong. Dean, a former free trader, has started to talk about the need to do more to prevent the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to China and other countries. Dean wants to write tougher trade deals in order to defend the interests of workers, farmers, consumers and the environment not just in the United States but in the countries that trade with the United States. That's a reasonable standard, with which most Democrats in Congress - and most Americans - agree.
Yet Kerry is trying to demagogue the issue, with claims that fair trade would "send our economy into a tailspin." How absurd! The U.S. manufacturing economy is already in a tailspin, thanks in no small measure to the free trade policies of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
The disturbing thing about Kerry's latest pronouncement is that he has made this mistake before.
Just last year, the Massachusetts senator tried to position himself as the leading Senate proponent of measures designed to preserve the ability of American states to protect workers, farmers, the environment and consumers in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement the Bush administration is crafting in closed-door negotiations with other countries in the western hemisphere. While Kerry sounded like a good player, he ended up breaking with fellow Democrats to back Bush's plan to establish a "fast track" process to negotiate the FTAA agreement.
The signals Kerry has sent on trade issues are deeply disturbing. He is starting to sound like 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, who tried to talk a pro-worker line but consistently supported the free trade that has devastated the manufacturing and agricultural sectors of the U.S. economy. Gore's shakiness on trade issues caused many working people to cast their ballots for Ralph Nader, a fierce critic of the corporate free trade agenda. Even more working-class voters simply stayed home. They didn't see the point of choosing between a Republican who backed bad trade policies and a Democrat who backed bad trade policies.
If Kerry persists in promoting a free trade agenda that is only vaguely superior to that of the Bush administration, he will muddy the debate and damage his prospects in November of 2004. Instead of attacking Dean - whose stance is not nearly as well-thought-out as the positions of former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Congressional Caucus Co-chair Dennis Kucinich - Kerry should be following Dean, Gephardt and Kucinich into the fair trade camp.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times