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January 5, 2007

Senate Democrats get Clinton (Bill) pep talk

Posted by David Postman at 5:59 PM

Former President Bill Clinton urged Senate Democrats today not to give up on globalization and not to let growing opposition to free trade fracture the party.

Clinton was the star speaker in a closed-door Senate Democratic retreat. Democrats met at the Library of Congress where they also heard from former Majority Leader George Mitchell — who held the post under the first President Bush — as well current leader Harry Reid and Senate freshmen.

They talked about the Iraq war and Democratic leaders' letter today to President Bush opposing an increase in U.S. troops in Iraq. (Read the full letter here.) They talked about the challenges of having five of them —10 percent of the caucus — thinking about running for president.

Reporters weren't allowed in. But I talked to Sen. Maria Cantwell about it later in the day. She said Clinton spoke at lunch. "His message was, 'Don't forget the middle class,' " Cantwell said. Freshmen members who spoke repeated that theme.

Clinton pushed for a new energy policy that would create American jobs, and stressed the "changing role of global citizenship." He specifically mentioned pending free trade agreements and said dickering over the details should not get in the way of preparing the country for inevitable change.

There are plenty of questions about the future of trade agreements in the new Congress. Democrats are not as enthusiastic about them as when Clinton was president. John Nichols wrote in a recent article in The Nation (subscription required for full story) about newly elected Democrats in the Senate who "could take the lead in upending the corporations-first approach of the past several administrations." The article was headlined, "The 'Seattle Senators' " because Nichols argues that the WTO debacle there in 1999 set the course for this change.

Much has been made of shifts in the House makeup that augur changes in trade policies: DeLay is gone, Republicans are out of power and more than two dozen new fair-trade Democrats are ready to take the place of free-trade Republicans. But the changes in the Senate are just as sweeping, and perhaps more significant. Of the six Republican incumbents who lost to Democrats on November 7, five were steady free-trade voters. All were replaced by lawmakers — Brown in Ohio, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jim Webb in Virginia and Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island — who argued that past trade agreements have failed to deliver on the promise of more prosperity for U.S. workers and farmers. In addition, the seat held by Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords, who voted for CAFTA and other trade deals, was taken by Bernie Sanders, who for more than a decade has been one of the steadiest and savviest critics of the free-trade agenda.

Organized labor has been encouraged by the shift. The New York Times reported in November:

"We are at a point where the Reagan era might finally be over, including the eight years of Bill Clinton," said Jeff Faux, a fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented research group partly financed by the A.F.L.-C.I.O. "The historic juncture here is whether the Democrats can come up with policies that get to the level of the problem."

Cantwell said that Clinton acknowledged that opposition. "He was saying, 'Don't let people divide us on that,' " Cantwell said.

The Senate Democrats had a long discussion about Iraq. And Cantwell said there appeared to be broad support for the positions laid out in the Reid/Pelosi letter to the president. But some of the Senate's leading voices on the war weren't seen at the retreat.

"Most of the presidentials weren't there," Cantwell said. That'd be the five Democratic senators thinking about running. But the nascent competition among Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John Kerry was a topic of discussion.

Cantwell said Reid told the caucus, "I know having five people thinking about running for president in a 50-50 majority may be an issue." But he told Democrats not to worry, that he had talked to all the would-be candidates and he was confident that their ambitions and competition would not be a distraction.

Cantwell was elected to the House in 1992 when Clinton won his first presidential election. She lost two years later when growing discontent with Clinton and his policies helped fuel a Republican revolution.

But she remains a steadfast Clinton Democrat.

"I think he took the party where it needed to go and since he left I'm not sure where we've been," she said.

Want to know the full power of Clinton's popularity in D.C.? He can make the papers doing what most of us do with no fanfare at all.

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