Sunday, December 05, 2010

President, opposition leader come to terms on international pact

A distant echo of President Obama's struggles to get the New Start treaty ratified in the lame duck session without caving completely on Democratic domestic priorities can be heard in the deal struck on November 23,1994 between President Clinton and Senate majority leader-to-be Bob Dole to expand the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). 

Dole had by this point already told Clinton privately what Mitch McConnell recently proclaimed publicly: that his party's top priority was defeating the president's reelection bid. But the calculus on this issue was different from that of New Start.  At stake was expanding free trade, long a top Republican priority -- because also a top priority, as populist America-Firster Pat Buchanan pointedly noted, of their big business paymasters.  Today, by contrast, the goals advanced by New Start -- advancing nonproliferation, securing Russian nukes, assembling effective international coalitions and inhibiting Iranian nuclear weapons development -- are matters of apparent indifference to Republican leadership. A nearer analogy would be with the free trade agreement Obama just struck with Korea - presumably even the next Senate won't block that.

Still, the contrast strikes me as worth looking at on a few fronts. First, the GATT expansion contained a core provision -- subjecting the U.S. like all member nations to the international group's jurisdiction on trade disputes -- that today's GOP would doubtless demagogue to death, never mind the free trade pressures. Second, notwithstanding Gingrich's then-unprecedented radicalism and level of ambition for an opposition Congress, the "tone in Washington" was less extreme then than now -- the possibility of genuine negotiation still taken for granted and was in fact fulfilled.  There were, the Times reported, genuine concessions on both sides:

After weeks of haggling with Administration officials, Mr. Dole received many of the concessions he had demanded. At noon today he appeared in the Rose Garden, shook Mr. Clinton's hand and declared that his reservations about the 124-nation accord, an expansion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, had been resolved.

The major concession by the Administration, he said, was to give Congress a "trigger mechanism" that would enable it to vote to withdraw from the agreement if it felt the United States was subject to unfair rulings by a newly created court of international trade. "I think we've fixed it," said Mr. Dole, who had come under tremendous and conflicting pressures in recent days from businesses that declared the pact vital to American competitiveness and from conservatives who said it would give panels of foreign judges the right to override American laws. "It may not be perfect, but it answers a lot of the concerns."

To reach today's compromise, Mr. Dole backed away from an effort he began last weekend to get the Administration to go along with a cut in the capital gains tax, long a Republican objective, in exchange for his support for the trade pact. In the end, he settled for a letter from Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen to consider the issue next year.

Finally, that Dole retreat on the tax front suggests a strategy for Obama on New Start. R.W. Apple's analysis of the compromise offers an explanation for why Dole gave up the tax cut chip:
At the same time, he backed away from his bid to force the White House to back a cut in the capital gains tax in return for his support for GATT. Mr. Clinton rejected any such link, as Mr. Dole must have known he would. But the point had nonetheless been made: Bob Dole cares about tax cuts as much as anyone.

Had he insisted on so transparently political a deal, covering two measures with very little intrinsic relationship to each other, Mr. Dole would have been flouting the very message that the voters delivered most clamorously on Nov. 8. They said that vintage Washington politics as usual was not good enough anymore, that horse-trading, your bill for mine, was part of the old-time religion.

Senate Republicans today have no qualms whatsoever about holding national security hostage to their domestic agenda, vowing to block all votes until the all Bush tax cuts are extended.  But horse-trading on those terms should not sit well with voters. What if Obama, instead of paying gratuitous (and false) tribute to Jon Kyl's good faith, hammered the Republicans for breaking the water's-edge taboo? 

It seems vain by now to hope for political hardball from Obama in this season. If he would simply make it clear that he would veto any extension of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% and dare the Republicans to vote down New Start, I believe he'd win on both fronts (though the tax cut fight might extend to January).  Instead, he seems prepared to trade the tax cuts for New Start -- that, I think, is the calculation underlying his slow-motion cave on the cuts.

The immediate high stakes highlight an important difference between today and late fall 1994: there was not then so much at stake in the lame duck session.  Clinton had a year to face down the GOP and thwart the most extreme elements in their agenda. While I am as frustrated as any progressive by Obama's lameness in this lame duck season, I am resolved to hold my breath -- and at least a measure of my faith -- and see how he fights in the year to come.

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