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Wages of Victory

On Tuesday, economic populism had a good night.

11:00 PM, Nov 9, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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SIX STATES VOTED Tuesday on ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage. All six endorsed those initiatives, mostly by solid or overwhelming majorities. (The states were Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio.) This news may come as little surprise--boosting the minimum wage always polls well--but it did signal an Election 2006 trend: Economic populism was a big winner.

Take Ohio. In recent years the Buckeye State has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs and seen its tax burden swell. In such conditions, free trade is a definite bugaboo.

Enter Democrat Sherrod Brown, a true rust-belt liberal from the town of Mansfield. Since joining the House in 1993, Brown has been among its most full-throated and unapologetic protectionists. He campaigned bitterly against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992 and went on to reject the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In 1999 he marched alongside anti-globalization protesters during the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. He consistently voted against normal trade relations with China and later excoriated the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), signed by President Bush in 2005. Brown has even published a book, Myths of Free Trade, and he hammered away at these themes throughout his successful Senate bid.

Elsewhere in Ohio, Democratic House candidate Zack Space declared that "the loss of jobs to overseas markets is perhaps the most serious, long term threat to this country, and our way of life." Next door in the Hoosier State, Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly, running in a district hit hard by factory layoffs, vowed to "vote against trade agreements that ship good-paying jobs overseas, such as the recent trade agreements with Chile and Singapore and CAFTA." In Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley blamed free trade for the "loss of manufacturing jobs." As he told at least one local reporter, "I am not running for Congress to advocate for the people of China."

Several Pennsylvania races were also marked by anti-trade populism. Democrat Patrick Murphy demanded that incumbent Republican Mike Fitzpatrick "join me and the families of the 8th District in opposing the Oman Free Trade Agreement, and admit his vote for CAFTA was misguided." Democrat Chris Carney ripped NAFTA and CAFTA for giving working families "a raw deal."

California Democrat Jerry McNerney said free trade was "costing America billions of dollars every year," and stressed the need to "rethink how we participate in globalization." Wisconsin Democrat Steve Kagen likewise called for "fair trade, not free trade." All of these Democrats were victorious.

In their emphasis on the relative conservatism of the incoming House Democratic freshmen, reporters have glossed over a bigger story: To the extent that many of these Democrats are conservative, they are conservative in a vaguely "Buchananite" sense, which means they tend to be noisy economic populists.

Two of the most socially conservative, Heath Shuler and Brad Ellsworth, were no exceptions. Shuler, the former NFL quarterback, said CAFTA had been a job killer in western North Carolina, where the textile industry has suffered from foreign competition. Ellsworth, the sheriff of Evansville, Indiana, also railed against the free trade pact with Oman, regretting that "for far too long, Washington has allowed American jobs to be shipped overseas."

One heard similar comments from Democratic Senate winners in Pennsylvania (Bob Casey), Virginia (Jim Webb), Missouri (Claire McCaskill), Montana (Jon Tester), and elsewhere. Webb was especially vituperative in his campaign announcement speech last April. "They talk endlessly about a dream-world of 'free trade' while year after year after year their policies continue costing American jobs," he said of Senate Republicans. "In rural America, including much of Virginia, they've wholesaled entire industries such as furniture and textiles to other countries, and outsourced stacks of other jobs as well. These actions by greedy international corporations that claim on paper to be American are amoral, if not immoral."

In his post-election column, Pat Buchanan himself trumpeted the results as proof that "economic nationalism" is returning. "With the 2006 election, America appears to have reached the tipping point on free trade," Buchanan wrote. "Anxiety, and fear of jobs lost to India and China, seems a more powerful emotion than gratitude for the inexpensive goods at Wal-Mart."

He may be at least partially right. Throughout the 2006 campaign, Republicans kvetched that they got no credit for a strong economy. There are myriad explanations for why that is, but suffice to say that one of them is the failure of wage growth--typically a lagging indicator--to keep pace with overall economic growth. (This allowed Democrats to howl about a "wageless recovery.")