Free-Trade Follies

A few weeks ago President Clinton gave up on his efforts to obtain "fast track" authority in negotiating trade deals. There were many reasons for the measure’s defeat. But the place where the president chose to fix the blame shows the low state to which political debate has fallen in America. "Fast track" authority was first extended in 1974 to President Gerald Ford. It allows a president to negotiate trade pacts with other nations and present them to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote. President Clinton, in the midst of negotiating new free-trade agreements, wanted Congress to renew fast track authority, which expired three years ago. But two key Democratic constituencies—labor unions and environmentalists—are unalterably opposed to giving the president fast track authority. This meant that the president could count on only token Democratic support. If fast track legislation was going to pass, the Republicans were going to have to provide the margin of victory. As the president lobbied for the bill, congressmen did what congressmen always do: They asked for favors in exchange for their votes, such as money for bridges or highways in their districts. A handful of prolife Republicans asked the president for a favor that would have cost nothing: They asked him to end overseas funding for family-planning groups that advocate or perform abortions. All they wanted was to save a few babies’ lives. But this was the one favor the president simply could not stomach. And during his post-mortem press conference, Clinton blamed prolifers for fast track’s failure. I’ve followed politics since 1955, and this is the most appalling display of scapegoating I’ve ever witnessed. I’m appalled and saddened. If the president wants to lay the blame for fast track’s defeat somewhere, he should start at his own feet. For example, his fund-raising shenanigans caused the Democratic National Committee to return nearly $15 million in questionable campaign contributions. The scandal also scared off potential donors. This has left the Democratic party even more dependent on Big Labor, which made the defeat of fast track its top priority. That’s the real reason the president couldn’t get even 20 percent of his own party to support fast track legislation. It wasn’t the tiny handful of prolife congressmen who defeated this bill. Yet the president feels comfortable placing the blame squarely on them. Why does the president think he can get away with this? Because reasoned political discourse has been replaced by sloganeering and scapegoating. And prolifers are the target of choice. Even worse, nobody seems to care. Americans yawned through the Senate hearings on campaign financing. There was little outrage over the president’s fund raising—or, for that matter, the Republicans’. No wonder the president feels free to fudge the truth—to blame the prolife movement for the demise of fast track. There’s no public outrage over this, either. The entire episode is distressing, because reasoned public discourse is essential to the preservation of self-government. It’s the way we decide issues concerning the common good—and we can’t do it unless we can play straight with the truth. Otherwise, our experiment in self-government will soon find itself on the fast track—straight into the ash bin of history.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary