The Democratic Party, narrowly defeated in the elections of 2000, 2002 and 2004, is lashing out in fury at George W. Bush's Republicans. You can see the evidence in the Senate debate, where they are claiming as a time-honored tradition their recent practice of filibustering appellate court nominees. Yet only 14 years ago, when the nomination of Clarence Thomas was before the Senate, no Democratic senator gave serious consideration to a filibuster, though there were enough senators opposed to Thomas to uphold one. Evidently, every senator then considered a filibuster unthinkable. Today, the unthinkable is a time-honored tradition.
At least on this issue the Democrats are fighting for a result that is in line with their long-held principles: This is a fight ultimately about Supreme Court nominations and whether Bush's nominees will need 50 votes or 60 to be confirmed. More distressing was watching Democrats on another, less visible, issue last week. On this one, their current stands are if not in conflict, then certainly in tension with their party's historic and recent stands. That issue is the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), negotiated by former Special Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and now advanced by his successor, former Rep. Rob Portman.
CAFTA covers Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic and is similar to other free-trade agreements that have been approved by Congress -- with Mexico and Canada in November 1993, Jordan in July 2001, Singapore and Chile in July 2003, and Australia and Morocco in July 2004. There is this difference:
Under the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), begun in the 1980s, more than 80 percent of the products from CAFTA countries already enter the U.S. duty-free. CAFTA would immediately remove import barriers on most U.S. manufactured goods and half of U.S. farm exports. CAFTA would also allow a small increase in sugar exports to the United States, rising from 1.2 percent of current sugar consumption in the first year to 1.7 percent 15 years later.
Like the free-trade agreement with Australia, CAFTA seems to be an almost unalloyed win-win. U.S. manufacturers and farmers would gain access to markets. U.S. farm interests have been pushing to open up Cuba, which has 11 million people with very low incomes. CAFTA would open up countries with 46 million people with higher incomes. CAFTA countries would be able to import U.S. textiles and fabrics and use them to make apparel that would be competitive with Chinese products. That's why the National Council of Textile Organizations endorsed the agreement.