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Given the pronounced leftward shift evident recently in the ranks of Democrats in the House of Representatives, last Thursday’s “final” (for now) vote for “fast track” trade negotiating authority for President Obama makes clear that at least 28 of these Congress Members believe that current trade strategies are entirely compatible with their stated aims of boosting MainStreet America’s fortunes. I hope they’ll read over this speech given in 1997 by President Bill Clinton to an AFL-CIO convention. It explains clearly why these beliefs are delusional, and why presidents who try to reinforce them don’t deserve their trust.

Mr. Obama knows he needs at least a sliver of House Democrats to ensure passage of fast track – which would prevent Congress from amending any trade agreements he brings before it, as well as sharply curb debate. So he’s repeatedly sent progressive groups the message that such agreements will actually benefit working class and middle class Americans, and that, further, he’s proved his progressive bona fides beyond reasonable doubt by championing any number of domestic programs to enable the “99 percent” to take full advantage. In the president’s words:

Smart, new, 21st century trade agreements are as important to helping the middle class get ahead in this new economy as things like job training, and higher education, and affordable health care.  They’re all part of a package.”

And he continued, in this April 23 speech, “I mean, think about it.  I’ve got some of these folks who are friends of mine, allies of mine saying this trade deal would destroy the American working families, despite the fact that I’ve done everything in my power to make sure that working families are empowered.  And, by the way, they’ve been with me on everything.”

Now flash back 18 years. In 1997, President Clinton was seeking fast track, too, and realized he needed at least some backing from his biggest constituencies to the left of center. He was also clearly just as worried as Mr. Obama about threats by unions in particular to work to unseat Congressional Democrats who supported the trade measures that labor detested.

So he told AFL delegates that his trade policies – including NAFTA – were “about how we can best seize our opportunities in the economy that is emerging, and how 4 percent of the world’s people can continue to maintain 20 to 22 percent of the world’s wealth, and continue to grow the economy so incomes can rise and new jobs can be created.”

Clinton went on to insist that “we share too many values and priorities to let this disagreement damage our partnership. You just think of all of the things that I reeled off that we’ve done together and all of the things we’ve stood against in the last five years. I have worked to make this economy work for middle-class Americans. I care about making sure everybody has a chance and making sure nobody is left behind. But I can’t build a better future without the tools to do the job, and America can’t lead if it’s bringing up the rear.

At the moment of our greatest economic success in an entire generation, we shouldn’t be reluctant about the future; we ought to seize it and shape it. And I think I also have to say to you that there are a lot of good members of Congress who agree with me about our trade policy who also stood for the minimum wage. They agree with me about our trade policy, but they fought to provide health care for 5 million more kids. They support open trade, but they also fought to protect Medicare and Medicaid and education and the environment, and to open the doors of college to all Americans.

And when the majority in Congress wanted to do so, they stood against them and fought with you against the Contract on America. They fought with you against attempts to repeal the prevailing wage laws, to weaken unions and workplace health and safety laws. They did so in the face of intense pressure. They have fought for you and for all working people, and they deserve our support. If they were to lose their positions because they stood up for what they believe was right for America’s future, who would replace them, and how much harder would it be to get the necessary votes in Congress to back the President when he stands by you [emphasis added] against the majority?”

Clinton, it must be remembered, lost the fast track vote that year, and was denied the authority in 1998 as well. But this avowed champion of working class Americans went on to press (successfully) for admitting China into the World Trade Organization, and when the Asian financial crisis struck in the late-1990s, kept U.S. markets wide open to Asian exports. Both these policies added powerfully to downward pressures on middle class manufacturing jobs and their high wages. Clinton escaped much blame back then because the interlocking technology and stock market bubbles created enough growth and employment to mask these more enduring losses.

When the ’90s high came to an abrupt end with the early 2000s recession, the middle class and especially manufacturing workers were hit especially hard, and the historic (for an expansion) employment and pay hits the latter kept suffering showed how greatly,and structurally, the Clinton trade policies damaged their fortunes.

Since hope springs eternal, and should never be dismissed out of hand, what would be understandable would be for House Democratic supporters of fast track to acknowledge the recent past, but to hold that This Time it’s Different. What would not be understandable would be for them to fail to explain exactly why.

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