Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Rallying Cry for Democratic Populism

A Rallying Cry for Democratic Populism
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain Dead Politics Are Selling Out America
Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain Dead Politics Are Selling Out America

What would happen if the opposition party actually chose to oppose the one in power? Not just on the margins, but by rejecting outright the majority party's fundamental beliefs on trade and tax policy?

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) urges Democrats to take on Republicans in just that way in his new book,
Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain Dead Politics Are Selling Out America He makes a politically compelling -- if economically questionable -- case.

Dorgan, a master of partisan rhetoric, puts his debating skills to good use in spinning out anecdotes that make free trade and corporate tax breaks seem cruel to the average citizen. He clearly hopes to instruct fellow Democrats how to ride a populist wave if one were ever to form.

Democrats are deeply divided, of course, about whether to adopt his advice. Many prefer pro-business, pro-trade positions that distinguish them a little from the GOP, but not a lot. A growing number of others, however, are in Dorgan's radical camp. They think the way to finally win is to just say "No."

Depending on how low President Bush's job-approval ratings go, Dorgan might be on to something. His book is worth reading if only to see in detail how a reenergized Democratic Party might act.

Its first tenet would be to buck the economic consensus about the wisdom and inevitability of globalization. Dorgan disparages the elites' blind faith in markets to produce positive financial results. Instead, he concentrates on the human toll that cheap labor has exacted on low- and middle-income families.

He describes well the personal hardship felt by loyal workers when factories for such iconic U.S. products as Fig Newtons, Levi's jeans and Radio Flyer wagons moved abroad. After Huffy bikes closed its plant in Celina, Ohio, Dorgan writes, employees left shoes in empty parking spaces to deliver the message, "You can move our jobs to China, but you're not going to be able to fill our shoes."

The senator does more than tug the heartstrings. He recommends a litany of solutions, including repealing a tax break that encourages the outsourcing of jobs overseas, prohibiting imports from countries that abuse their workers and setting a ceiling on our trade deficits.

He would stop approving free-trade agreements of the kind that have flowed through Congress in recent years. Democratic and Republican administrations alike have embraced such pacts (NAFTA for North America and CAFTA for Central America, for example) as the only way for the United States to prosper over the long run in an interdependent international economy.

Dorgan rejects that thinking as injurious to American workers, the people whose well-being, he says, should be the focus of federal policy. The title of his final chapter says it all: "Flat World? No, Flat Wrong!"

To Dorgan, big corporations are the villains and labor unions the saviors. "I understand that big is not always bad, and small is not always beautiful," he writes. But, he adds: "If the shoe fits, wear it. And it damn well better be American-made."

He blames many of the nation's woes on the avarice of large multinational companies -- a tack that few politicians, dependent on campaign contributions, are willing to take these days. He also bashes lobbyists, which is for him a somewhat hollow declaration. His wife, Kimberly Olson Dorgan, is the chief lobbyist for the American Council of Life Insurers.

Dorgan heaps particular scorn on pharmaceutical and oil companies. He accuses drugmakers, for instance, of bending the country's laws in ways that hurt consumers and bloat their bottom lines. In response, he would repeal laws that bar the government from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices and that prohibit the importation of less-expensive prescription drugs from countries such as Canada.

These are not the freshest of ideas, particularly coming from a liberal Democrat. But Dorgan delivers them with real sting. He claims, for example, that Tommy G. Thompson, then-secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told him privately that Dorgan was "right" to favor allowing prescription drugs to cross into this country -- a position at odds with that of Thompson's boss at the time, President Bush.

Dorgan also sounds what has become a major rallying cry for the political left -- a full-throated assault on the nation's largest retailer. "Wal-Mart," he writes, "is the poster child for what has gone so terribly wrong in this global economy." He complains that the company "trades American jobs for cheap foreign labor" and "pushes wages down here in the United States."

"Take This Job and Ship It" is Dorgan's effort to spread that kind of populism beyond his prairie home.

Birnbaum covers lobbying and politics for The Washington Post.