WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton's campaign, which is a guttering candle, has suffered a perhaps extinguishing gust of ill wind. Her principal strategist has been forced to resign from that role.
Mark Penn's sin was to be caught doing something sensible, surreptitiously. That is the only way Democrats can do sensible things regarding trade when their party is pandering to organized labor. Penn's downfall makes him a member of a species which many Democrats insist is large and about which Democrats theatrically grieve: Penn is a casualty of free trade.
He was freely practicing one of his trades, which is advising clients on how to deal with the U.S. government. To that end, he met with the Colombian ambassador to the United States concerning how to win ratification of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement.
Although he simultaneously was freely practicing another of his trades, being a campaign operative, he probably perished for commercial reasons rather than political principles. Colombia hired him through the corporation for which he works, Burson-Marsteller. Unfortunately, his other client, Clinton, currently opposes the free-trade agreement as ardently as, presumably, she opposes the Red Sox -- for now.
Penn's actual beliefs about free trade, whatever they are, pro or con, certainly accord either with those that Clinton holds now or with those that she held dear back in the 1990s, when she was in the White House's East Wing acquiring the semi-demi-quasi-presidential experience that makes her just the person to answer the red telephone that, judging by her campaign ads, rings constantly in the West Wing.
She favored the North American Free Trade Agreement until she opposed it: She favored it back when she was a Cub fan, before she imagined being senator from New York and discovered, or remembered, that she had always been a Yankee fan. She opposes NAFTA and the Colombia agreement now that she is a presidential candidate, but her views might change again in a few weeks, when her status does.
Another politician promising to protect America from Colombia's economic might (an economy smaller than Connecticut's and one-43rd the size of America's) is Barack Obama, whose passion for "change" does not encompass changing his party's ritual of genuflecting at the altar of protectionism. Amazingly, that obeisance is enforced by unions that represent a tiny (7.5 percent) and declining fraction of the private-sector work force.
Austan Goolsbee, Obama's economic adviser, says that "60 to 70 percent of the economy faces virtually no international competition." America's 18.5 million government employees, among whom organized labor finds its growth, have almost no vulnerability to foreign competition, and neither do auto mechanics, dentists and countless other professions. Furthermore, Goolsbee, with whom Obama might profitably have a conversation, says that globalization, meaning free trade and attendant deregulation, is responsible for a "small fraction" of today's widening income disparities.
Under the Andean Trade Preference Act, passed by a Democratic Congress is 1991, the U.S. imposes tariffs on only 8 percent of imports from Colombia. But more than 90 percent of U.S. exports to Colombia are subjected to tariffs, some as high as 35 percent. The trade agreement would make this "one-way free trade," which now primarily serves Colombia's interests, more mutually beneficial.
Nevertheless, U.S. unions oppose the agreement, probably to preserve the moral clarity of their monomania: Damn the details, full speed ahead in opposing more free-trade agreements, anywhere, anytime.
Colombia, America's best South American ally, shares a border with America's most aggressive South American enemy, Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe has made stunning progress against the drug cartels, right-wing militias and FARC, the 9,000-man Marxist terrorist group that is financed by drug smuggling and kidnapping. But Obama, nimble at the art of enveloping the courtship of interest groups in clouds of high-mindedness, says Colombia has not done enough to protect its trade unionists.
Colombia's unions, however, document that the number of murders of their members has sharply declined. Edward Schumacher-Matos, visiting professor of Latin American studies at Harvard, notes that "it was far safer to be in a union than to be an ordinary citizen in Colombia last year": The murder rate of unionists was less than one-eighth the murder rate of Colombians generally.
When this campaign is over and it is too late for legality to matter, it may be determined that Penn and others, including some of the lobbyists with which John McCain's campaign is larded, have been involved in violations of campaign laws pertaining to entanglements between corporations and campaigns. What will still matter is Colombia, which may be a casualty of presidential politics.