... and a big con for Democrats

It's hard to stay committed when you've been kicked in the teeth. Which means Bill Clinton's push to grant China permanent normal trade status just might infuriate enough core Democrats to hand Republicans the White House and Congress.

The parallels with 1994 are disturbing. At that time, pundits credited Republican victories to angry white men, Mr. Clinton's failed healthcare plan, and Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America." But the defeat was equally rooted in a massive withdrawal of volunteer support among Democratic activists who felt politically betrayed. Nothing fostered this sense more than Clinton's going to the mat to push the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - foreshadowing today's battle over China. Angered by a sense Clinton was subordinating all other priorities to corporate profits, social-justice activists withdrew their energy from Democratic campaigns. This helped swing the election for Mr. Gingrich.

No place saw a more dramatic political shift in that election than my home state of Washington. In November 1992, Democratic activists volunteered by the thousands, hoping to end the Reagan-Bush era. On election day, I joined five other volunteers to help get out the vote in a swing district near Seattle. Practically every major Democratic district in the state had a similar presence. The effort helped Clinton and Gore to carry the state and Democrats to capture eight out of nine House seats.

By 1994, things had changed. Grass-roots Democratic campaigners mostly stayed home, disgruntled. In Washington State, there were barely enough people to distribute literature and make phone calls in Seattle's most liberal neighborhoods, let alone in swing suburban districts.

The same was true nationwide. I was traveling, promoting a book on campus activism, and visiting friends long involved with social causes. Everywhere I went, critical races would be decided by the narrowest of margins.

Yet my friends seemed strangely detached, as if they were so disgusted with politics they no longer wanted anything to do with it. In Washington State, Republicans won seven of the nine congressional races, and voters reelected Sen. Slade Gorton, known for baiting native Americans and environmentalists. CNN and Gallup polls found 42 percent of America's voters who stayed home leaned Democratic - a margin wide enough that they would've reversed the election outcome, had they voted. Even a modest volunteer effort could've prevented the Republican sweep.

When I interviewed progressive activists who might well have made the difference, they spoke of the Clinton administration's repeated surrender to powerful economic interests. Clinton had made them so furious they couldn't bring themselves to volunteer. NAFTA particularly triggered their anger because it invited corporations to cut and run, chasing the lowest wages and working conditions available. Of the Washington State Democrats who lost their congressional seats, all but one had voted for NAFTA.

To prevail in contested races, Democratic candidates need widespread citizen involvement. They need the precise kinds of volunteers who'll be most frustrated by the Clinton administration's push to waive human rights standards for China, and for whom all talk of constructive engagement just echoes the history of US corporate support for politically repressive countries from Chile to Indonesia to South Africa.

In fact, two-thirds of Americans oppose permanent trade status. But because Republicans can always raise more money from wealthy donors, they can win with a minimal grass-roots base, or one focused primarily on social issues like opposition to abortion and gay rights. Democrats can't.

To their credit, a majority of Democratic House members oppose the trade bill. Some honorable Republicans, disturbed by China's treatment of religious dissidents, oppose it too. But it's the Democratic base that risks being demobilized.

I want to encourage political involvement, not discourage it. But Clinton trade policies leave environmental, labor, and human rights activists caught in a box. They don't want a repeat of 1994, with all the regressive legislation that the Gingrich Congress promoted. They're worried even more about the chilling possibility that a Republican presidency, Congress, and Supreme Court would eliminate even the slightest government barriers to runaway economic greed, from environmental laws to the rights of unions to organize. Many, like the AFL-CIO, have felt compelled to walk a tightrope - challenging the administration's giving an open door to one of the most dictatorial regimes in the world, while doing their best to mobilize members to support the Democrats in November.

Given the stakes, I hope enough progressive grass-roots activists will set aside legitimate anger and disappointment to volunteer in the coming election. But how many others will stay home? And will those who do participate be able to do so with all their enthusiasm and heart? Their task will be far easier if the China bill fails.

* Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of 'Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time' (St. Martin's Press, 1999).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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