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Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Issues That Aren't (July 26, 2000)
Where does George W. Bush stand on Microsoft? Where does Al Gore stand on Kosovo? On Big Tobacco? You don't know? You're not alone, writes Christopher Caldwell.

The Democratic Difference (July 13, 2000)
Ralph Nader says the Republican and Democratic parties are indistinguishable. Jack Beatty looks at the record on labor, "the issue our era will be measured by," and sees quite another reality.

Your Morality, My Values (June 28, 2000)
Values and morality may sound like the same thing, Christopher Caldwell writes, but Democrats have been able to capitalize on one, while Republicans remain stuck on the other.

Who Owns Capitalism? (June 15, 2000)
Has democracy at last caught up with capitalism? Jack Beatty on the balance of power between the corporation and society.

Joe Sixpack's Revenge (May 17, 2000)
If the authors of two new books are right, it's time for Republicans to give class warfare a chance. Christopher Caldwell explains.

Governing Globalism (May 3, 2000)
Jack Beatty on the protests in Washington, Runaway World, and globalization's good and bad sides.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.


Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.


The Legacy Haunting Gore

Trade, not scandal, is the legacy of the Clinton years that could cost Gore the election

by Jack Beatty


August 9, 2000

What do Al Gore and Bill Clinton have in common with the self-described "conservative" delegates at last week's GOP convention? They share views on trade that are minority ones in the country at large, a fact that bears on the upcoming election. According to a July 31 New York Times poll, only 27 percent of the GOP delegates agreed with the statement that "trade restrictions are necessary to protect American industry," while 61 percent agreed that "free trade must be allowed, even if domestic industries are hurt by foreign competition." The trade policy of the Clinton-Gore Administration enshrined in NAFTA, the WTO, and the permanent normalization of trade with China, has been based on these same conservative principles -- let businesses hurt by foreign competition go under or relocate to the Third World, and let their employees lose their jobs, but don't interfere with trade, because that would introduce inefficiency into that engine of aggregate felicity, the global economy. Surprisingly, the views of the convention delegates and Clinton-Gore on trade are not shared by all GOP voters at large (or by the rest of the voting public). According to the same New York Times poll, 60 percent of the GOP voters favor trade restrictions, and only 30 percent embraced the view that free trade must be allowed, even if it hurts American industry. These numbers show that on the issue of trade Clinton, Gore, and the GOP conservatives are to the right of strong majorities of voters. And this may doom Al Gore.

In the July 31 issue of The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson, the executive editor of LA Weekly, shows why. He points out that fifty-two of the fifty-six House Democrats in the industrial heartland, from New Jersey across the Midwest to the Mississippi, voted against the Clinton-Gore Administration on normalization of trade with China. These congressmen were following the wishes of their constituents, and these constituents, in this closely fought campaign, will decide the election. On the issue of trade, which stands in people's minds for jobs, health insurance, pensions, and their children's life-chances, the political demographics of the battleground states are tilted against Al Gore.

To be sure, George W. Bush believes in the machine of aggregate felicity as reflexively as Gore and the GOP convention delegates do. Bush won't be punished for being a conservative on trade, but Gore almost certainly will be. All it would take to tip those crucial states to Bush would be for a few thousand unmotivated Democrats in each of those fifty-two congressional districts to stay home on Election Day. Ominously, Gore has yet to solidify the Democratic base: while slightly more than seven in ten Democrats say they will vote for Gore, nine in ten Republicans will vote for Bush. Trade, not scandal, is the legacy of the Clinton years that is haunting Al Gore.

Consider what that legacy has cost the "working families" of Democratic rhapsody. Bill Clinton made a fateful choice in 1993. As the political scientists Darrel M. West and Burdett A. Loomis explain in The Sound of Money (1998), which covers the failure of Clinton's bid to enact universal health insurance, Clinton sacrificed his health-care plan when he chose to support NAFTA. "Lane Kirkland [of the AFL-CIO] came to see us in August 1993," an administration official told the authors, "and basically said, 'We have $5 million to spend. We can either spend it supporting health care or fighting NAFTA.' The president wanted to support NAFTA. As a result the AFL-CIO spent their time and money that fall fighting NAFTA. Some of the consumer groups that were going to support us on health care did the same thing." In the end, thanks to Newt Gingrich and the other conservative Republican congressmen who voted for it, Clinton got NAFTA, but with that victory he lost the battle over health care. The abstention of key Democratic interest groups from the health-care debate, the authors write, "had devastating consequences for the President's ability to sell his program to Congress and the American public." What would have been "a well balanced fight between competing ends of the political spectrum" turned into a "one-sided battle dominated by insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and small business."

Ironically, "health care that's always there" -- whether one is working, laid-off, or in transition to a new job -- would have enhanced economic efficiency far more than NAFTA. If the link between jobs and health insurance had been broken, the flexibility of the work force would be much greater than it is today, when employees afraid of losing coverage soldier on in unchallenging jobs. Indeed, health security should be a social prerequisite of free trade, since it would ensure that manufacturing workers would not lose their health insurance if they lost their jobs to the Chinese prison laborers and starving Indonesian peasants whom Clinton, Gore, and Bush want them to compete against. Elected to bring economic security to the Americans most vulnerable to the global economy, Clinton-Gore instead increased their economic insecurity. And the Administration did nothing for the 40 million Americans, most of whom work full-time, who don't have health insurance.
Clinton could have been remembered as the President who guaranteed health care as a right for all Americans, something the progressive Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Harry Truman tried and failed to do. But his support of the ideology of free trade, sweetened irresistibly by corporate soft money and the favor of elite journalists, cost him that historic accomplishment, and it may cost Gore the presidency.


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More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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