Democratic schism over NAFTA could leave lasting rift in party Opposing sides say anger is deep

September 18, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton threw down the gauntlet on the North American Free Trade Agreement this week, he put himself squarely in a fight that party leaders on both sides say is tearing the Democratic Party in half.

Some Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are upset with the Congressional Black Caucus; the Texas delegation is angry at the California delegation; freshmen Democrats are mad at senior Democrats.

"It's a huge war," says Jim Duffy, a Washington-based Democratic political consultant. "A civil war."

"I've never seen the party so split," said Rep. Bill Richardson, a Mexican-American Democrat. "Even in the Hispanic caucus, it breaks down along lines that are hard to deal with. Basically, the Cubans and Puerto Ricans are against it, the Mexicans are for it -- except in California for some reason."

Mostly, the fault line on NAFTA centers on organized labor. Its leaders and allies on Capitol Hill are furious at Democrats even thinking of supporting the trade pact -- and have made the kind of emotional threats and accusations that in ordinary life can break up friendships or lead to divorces.

"The sharpest reactions within traditional Democratic circles that I have ever seen have come in response to people who say they are going to defect -- and that's the word we use -- and vote for this thing," says Jim Mauro, a Washington-based labor union attorney. "When this is over, I don't think people [within the party] are going to be talking to each other."

Loyalty is a subjective concept, though, and the question of which side is really the legitimate Democratic Party position is not as simple as labor officials assert.

True, the treaty was negotiated originally by Republican President George Bush. But President Clinton offered qualified support for NAFTA when he ran for president, easily defeating Democratic primary challengers who opposed it. And last week, Mr. Clinton put his own credibility on the line for the treaty, which is also supported by the Democratic National Committee and most of its past chairmen and by Jimmy Carter, the only living Democratic ex-president.

"If this fails, the Democratic Party will be seen as the 'Protectionist Party,' " warns Rep. Robert Matsui, a California Democrat leading the charge in favor of ratification. "We will lose the confidence of the private sector, immobilize our own president and cause our foreign trading partners to view us with the kind of deep suspicion they view the Labour Party in Britain."

NAFTA foes foresee doom

Opposing the treaty are veteran liberal party activists Jerry Brown, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader; House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri; House Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan; and both California senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Foes of the agreement, which would eliminate most trade barriers and tariffs between Mexico, the United States and Canada, insist this treaty would be the end of the line for blue-collar Americans and their families.

"We already know the jobs held by our members that will go to Mexico if NAFTA passes," said Mr. Mauro, in-house counsel for the International Union of Electronic, Electrical and Salaried Machine and Furniture Workers. "It's a disaster."

Jim Jontz, director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, an anti-NAFTA coalition of labor, consumer, environmental and family farm groups, said that Democratic liberals see the agreement as a symbol of a decade of Republican rule.

"They see it as embodying the Reagan-Bush politics they fought hard against," he said. "They are flabbergasted that Bill Clinton, who they worked to elect, would now carry water for the policies of the past, and, frankly, this enrages local activists who thought they were getting something else. That's why it's such a dangerous issue for the Democratic Party because the activists at the local level, who are the ones on whom the party depends, are not happy."

Proponents of the treaty, however, feel just as strongly. Mr. Matsui and others point out that the environmental degradation occurring along the U.S.-Mexico border is happening already -- and insist that the treaty is the very lever the United States can use to clean it up.

Furthermore, as Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, has said, U.S. manufacturers are free to set up plants in Mexico now -- and well over 1,000 have done so -- and it is NAFTA that gives the United States the return on this investment because it it allows U.S. companies unfettered access to the vast Mexican market.

To Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, it is the opponents of NAFTA who are rooted in the past.

"There is a fundamental choice facing Democrats: Let Bill Clinton lead this party in a new direction. Or let the old special interest groups drag us back to the positions that kept us out of power for a generation," said Mr. Marshall.

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