Democrats' hypocrisy knows no bounds when it comes to free trade. The latest example of duplicity comes from the Clinton campaign, which was forced to announce on Sunday that chief strategist Mark Penn would be stepping down from his official post. It seems Penn had been doing a little moonlighting on behalf of the government of Colombia in its efforts to win a free-trade agreement with the U.S. -- something Hillary Clinton vigorously opposes.
Penn, who has earned around $15 million from the Clinton campaign for providing strategic advice, never gave up his other job as worldwide CEO of the large public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which represents Colombia. He had promised Hillary, however, that he'd recuse himself from dealing with the issue personally. But then last week Penn met with Colombia's ambassador to the U.S. just as President Bush was about to send the Colombia free trade agreement to Capitol Hill.
Of course, the Clinton campaign isn't the only one that has been embarrassed on the trade issue. Earlier, Barack Obama got egg on his face when one of his economic advisers, Austan Goolsbee, told Canadian officials that Obama didn't really mean what he said when he was busy bashing the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But the real problem for the Democrats isn't undisciplined campaign advisers -- it's the candidates' ridiculous pandering on trade itself. Clinton and Obama are worried that they might offend the protectionist labor unions that provide money and "volunteers" -- actually, paid union staff -- critical to their fortunes in November, whichever one of them gets the nomination. So, they prattle on about the dangers of trade pacts like the one President Bush is proposing Congress fast-track with Colombia. And they never let facts get in the way of their claims that free trade costs American jobs.
In the case of the Colombia agreement, the Democrats' criticism is even more outrageous -- namely that we can't sign a pact because Colombian trade unionists have sometimes been assassinated. Obama has gone so far as to suggest, "You've got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition." In fact, Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, has fought hard against extremists of both left and right in his country, and crime against labor leaders is actually lower than against other sectors of the population. Indeed, Uribe is one of America's strongest allies in Latin America, and he has had remarkable success rescuing a nation that was on the brink of anarchy a few years ago.
The Colombia free trade pact will help the U.S. every bit as much as it will Colombia -- in some ways, more. The overwhelming majority of Colombia's exports to the U.S. -- 90 percent -- already are free of tariffs, but our exports to Colombia face heavy tariffs of up to 35 percent -- and depending on the product, sometimes much more -- for everything from consumer goods to agriculture. If Congress acts favorably on the agreement, 85 percent of our industrial and consumer exports will be tariff-free, and eventually 100 percent of our exports will be. Now, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is threatening not to allow a vote on the issue at all, jeopardizing not just this agreement, but our ability to negotiate future trade agreements, as well.
A secure and economically viable Colombia helps us in many ways. The U.S. faces unfriendly governments in several Latin American countries, most notably Venezuela under the dictator Hugo Chavez. We need all the friends we can get in the region -- and rejecting the Colombia agreement will be a real slap in the face of a strong ally. President Uribe has cracked down on narco-traffickers, seizing 500 metric tons of cocaine in 2006 alone -- and these groups wreak havoc not only by financing terrorism in their home country, but flooding our inner cities with drugs that breed crime and corruption.
Instead of firing their campaign advisers because they made the candidates look like hypocrites, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should rethink their own positions on free trade. Clinton has previously made some sensible statements on the issue, and one of her husband's few major accomplishments in office was winning approval of NAFTA. And Obama is too smart a fellow to not realize that what he says about NAFTA and the Colombia agreement is utter nonsense. But I won't hold my breath for either of them to show real leadership by rejecting protectionism.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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