Democratic Party

Benedict Arnold's Two Americas

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What happens to international free trade when a honey-throated class warrior teams up with a presidential candidate who has campaigned on putting the whip on "Benedict Arnold CEOs" and corporations that "avoid paying their fair share of U.S. taxes"? That's presumably one of the main questions nagging at the libertarians for Kerry leaners out there. The answer that came here on Edwards Day was a mushy mixed message that might be boiled down to: Well, we'll still pay limited lip service to that Fair Trade stuff on camera, while our economics wizards are busy assuring the policy wonks that the U.S.-led free-trade train is firmly on the tracks. And by the way, isn't that George Bush fellow horrible?

During the Democratic primary season, the North Carolina Senator's short-lived surge in "Two Americas"-related popularity threw up a significant protectionist challenge to John Kerry's left flank, which he promptly fought off by equating outsourcing with treason in New Hampshire and Wisconsin. How did Edwards broach the topic in tonight's speech? Thusly:

We're gonna stop giving tax breaks to companies that outsource your jobs. Instead, we will give tax breaks to American companies that keep jobs here in America.

That's it, in a seven-page speech. About as mum and bland on the subject as Howard Dean was on the Iraq war. It doesn't mean that he's still not wrong—manipulating an already incomprehensible tax code by creating a bureaucrat who decides how many jobs are kept in America sounds like a marvelous waste of time and money. But it does indicate that Lou Dobbsian rantings about the ghastlies who dare help lift the developing world out of poverty is no longer on the Democratic front-burner.

Further evidence for that came yesterday at a lower-wattage event at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, where Clinton's former national economic adviser Laura Tyson, who is a senior Kerry campaign consultant and a short-lister for possible Treasury Secretary, said (according to Matthew Yglesias' notes)

When people say, 'well, listen to what the Kerry campaign has said about trade in some of the primaries; we are concerned that Sen. Kerry will move the U.S. away from trade integration.'To which I say, well, think about the issue of national campaigns in the U.S.. Recognize that what might be said in one primary … is not an indicator of the future…. [What's important] is Sen. Kerry's very courageous, very consistent, very long-term record on trade and global economic integration…. [He has shown] courage in this direction because a significant part of my party's base is a voice of concern about trade … and is consistently asking for policies that would take the U.S. backwards. […]

I want to assure you that a Kerry-Edwards administration will continue in the great American tradition of leading the way on global economic integration.

It's always refreshing to hear a senior campaign adviser tell you that her boss is a pandering bullshitter. But this has been a Democratic talking point for more than two months—in mid-July, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, when asked by the Asian Financial Times to comment on the Benedict Arnold line, parroted the free-trade line, topped by an impressively brazen whopper:

[L]ook at his voting record on trade, on international issues, respect for the United Nations. He supported international trade treaties, free trade agreements. His reference there was … to some of the CEOs of Enron and others that I believe were … misusing stocks and other funds. That was his reference.

That wasn't his reference at all, of course, as the columnist Mark Steyn (among others) have memorably pointed out. Kerry's own backtracking on his famous crack, as performed in a Wall Street Journal interview this May, is floptastic enough to be worth repeating in full:

[T]he Benedict Arnold line applied, you know, I called a couple of times to overzealous speechwriters and said, 'Look, that's not what I'm saying.' Benedict Arnold does not refer to somebody who, in the normal course of business, is going to go overseas and take jobs overseas. That happens. I support that…. I was referring to the people who take advantage of non-economic transactions purely for tax purposes—sham transactions—and give up American citizenship. That's a Benedict Arnold.

The phrase has even vanished from the JohnKerry.com website, though you can still read this Google cache.

But—assuming for the moment that they can be decoded and believed—what are Kerry's actual stated policy positions on trade? Here's the relevant stretch from the Democratic Party's 2004 platform:

Free and fair trade that creates American jobs.
Exports sustain about 1 in 5 American factory jobs. Open markets spur innovation, speed the growth of new industries, and make our businesses more competitive. We will make it a priority to knock down barriers to free, fair and balanced trade so other nation's markets are as open as our own.

We will stand up for American workers and consumers by building on President Clinton's progress in including enforceable, internationally recognized labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. We will aggressively enforce our trade agreements with a real plan that includes a complete review of all existing agreements; immediate investigation into China's workers' rights abuses and currency manipulation; increased funding for efforts to protect workers' rights and stop child labor abuse; new reforms to protect the innovations of high-tech companies; and vigorous enforcement of U.S. trade laws. We will use all the tools we have to create new opportunities for American workers, farmers, and businesses, and break down barriers in key export markets, like the Japanese auto market and the Chinese high-technology market. We will effectively enforce our trade laws protecting against dumping, illegal subsidies, and import surges that threaten American jobs.

New trade agreements must protect internationally recognized workers' rights and environmental standards as vigorously as they now protect commercial concerns. We will build on and strengthen the progress made in the Jordan agreement to include strong and enforceable labor and environmental standards in the core of new free trade agreements. And no trade agreement should stop government from protecting the environment, food safety or the health of its citizens. Nor should an agreement give greater rights to foreign investors than to U.S. investors, require the privatization of our vital public services, or limit our government's ability to create good jobs in our communities.

Do we believe in this highly conditional trade agenda, or do we believe Laura Tyson's assurances that they'll never see the light of day? Do we believe John Kerry in February, or John Kerry in May? And is it worrying that he plays naked politics with an important principle?

Well, not to anyone I've found in the last three days here. Trade, like most issues that divided New Democrats from the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party," is just not a topic of conversation. Even the protest kids seem to have forgotten what drove them so crazy back in the Seattle days—of the 50 or so posters I saw in the Freedom Cage tonight, only one mentioned anything about trade, and it did so simply by spelling out the phrase "World Trade Organization." Delegate after delegate I speak with here doesn't have much time for the frequently massive differences of opinion inside the Democratic tent. It's not that they're necessarily being evasive, or putting up a forced show of unity, but the overwhelming vibe is that there's just something quite a good deal more important to focus on right now. Free trade, fair trade, no trade, whatever—just win, baby.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: This post was written by Matt Welch, not Tim Blair, which hopefully was evident enough.

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