PRESIDENT BUSH WENT TO BED at the normal time, roughly 10p.m., on the night the House of Representatives voted on the Central American Free Trade Agreement. But he was awakened by White House staffers to talk to wavering Republicans on the House floor. A cell phone with the president on the line was passed by Bush's chief congressional lobbyist, Candida Wolff, from congressman to congressman. Then Bush watched the vote count on C-SPAN before giving up. The total for CAFTA looked to be stuck at 214, not enough for passage. He went back to bed, only to be called a few moments later by Karl Rove, his political adviser and deputy chief of staff. Three Republicans--Robin Hays of North Carolina, Steve LaTourette of Ohio, Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania--had simultaneously voted for the treaty and it had won. Relieved, Bush went back to bed again. It was after midnight.
Bush worked harder for CAFTA--and stayed up later--than he had for the vote in 2003 on his Medicare prescription drug benefit. The White House, indeed Bush's entire administration, was mobilized for this vote. For days, Bush met with House members individually and in small groups. He traveled to Capitol Hill to address the House Republican conference on the morning of the vote, speaking passionately for nearly 45 minutes with no notes, then answering a dozen questions. Rove was deeply involved, too, making calls and office visits and having lunch with one House member whose vote was critical.
Why the extraordinary effort? It wasn't because the treaty with Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic was so important to the American economy. Exports from the United States to the six countries total about $15 billion a year. That's roughly the buying power of the greater Sacramento metropolitan area. True, the treaty does integrate the six economies more tightly with our own. And it has symbolic value: the big guy to the north embracing his little brothers to the south.
But more important to Bush than its economics or symbolism is CAFTA's national security value. Fidel Castro and his acolyte, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, are desperately trying to undermine the democratically elected and mostly pro-American governments of Central America. They would like to see the Marxist Sandinistas regain power in Nicaragua, for instance, and Chávez is pumping money from his country's oil wealth into that project, among others. (He also provides cut-rate oil wealth to Castro's Cuba.) Both Bush and the democratic leaders in Central America believe CAFTA will bolster their economies and strengthen them against leftist radicals of the Castro/Chávez ilk. Thus, in his address to House Republicans, the president devoted much of his speech to this issue.
A second reason for Bush's enthusiasm for CAFTA is his trade agenda. Presidents have usually gotten their way when they've pushed for more open trade, but after a half century, the free trade consensus on Capitol Hill has collapsed. Meanwhile, countries all over the world--in the Middle East especially--are clamoring to negotiate free trade treaties with the United States. If CAFTA had failed, Bush's entire trade agenda would have been off the table for the remainder of his second term. Instead, it lives. Why does that matter? To qualify for a trade agreement with the United States, countries must adopt the practices of democratic capitalism, which means a treaty might achieve what it took a war to accomplish in Iraq. In the past, trade treaties sailed through the Senate, but CAFTA was ratified only 54-45--and that masks how difficult it was for Republicans to put together a mere majority. The House has traditionally looked even less favorably on free trade.
There's a third reason CAFTA was so important to Bush. It's exactly what you'd think: politics. After seeing the prospects for enacting Social Security reform fade, Bush needed a victory. Or at least he had to stave off a Democratic win. For the first time in the post-World War II era, the leaders of a party made it their policy to defeat a free trade agreement. Democrats offered a series of unconvincing explanations for their opposition, but their transparent motive was to deal a serious blow to Bush. Had they succeeded, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi would be gloating on national TV about the demise of the Bush presidency. And it would be true. Instead, Bush is revived and ready to take another shot at overhauling Social Security, plus take up tax reform.
Two Republican leaders played significant roles in passing CAFTA. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is an ardent free trader and a genius at drafting legislation that only he understands fully. Thomas is also pragmatic. He allowed a vote on a bill requiring the monitoring of China's trade practices to come before CAFTA. It passed, dissipating some of the anxiety over China. The other Republican who mattered was whip Roy Blunt. He promised all year that he could produce enough votes to ratify CAFTA, and he finally persuaded the White House. Better yet, he delivered.
For all the media chatter about Bush as a diminished force in Washington, he and congressional Republicans have put together a string of impressive victories with more to come. With John Roberts as his nominee, the president is on his way to transforming the Supreme Court into the conservative body that Republicans have dreamed about for decades. Meanwhile, the economy is so robust that Democrats rarely mention it. Is Bush a lame duck? He sure is. He may be the most energized and successful lame duck in the history of the modern presidency.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.