In the spring of 1983, I attended an extraordinary meeting in a Washington hotel. The participants were Democratic members of Congress and representatives of organized labor. What made the event memorable was the level of acrimony between these traditional allies. The press and public were not present, so there was more straight-from-the-shoulder talk, but I don’t think that anyone was prepared for the response of one young Midwestern Democrat to a routine appeal for solidarity with the United Auto Workers, this time in support of tariffs against Japanese cars. The Democratic lawmaker stood up, looked the union man in the eye and said, “Maybe if you guys built better cars, you wouldn’t need us to protect you from the Japanese.”
It was a statement that no Democrat who felt himself heir to the New Deal tradition of loyally supporting labor’s demands would ever have uttered. This was a Democrat with a difference. Elected in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, when revulsion for Richard Nixon extended to congressional Republicans, Democrats began coming to Washington from districts not accustomed to sending anyone but a Republican to represent them. If these new members cherished any hope of being reelected, they could not be too far out of line with the concerns of their white-collar, suburban constituents. It is this new breed of pro-business Democrat that has lined up with President Clinton in support of NAFTA and against the members of their caucus who wear the traditional Democratic blue collar.
The post-Watergate turnover in House seats complicated a longstanding factional structure in the Democratic Party. The traditional split had been between Democrats representing industrial districts in the North and Midwest and those who were elected by rural, Southern constituencies. The issues over which these Democrats fought were race, cultural matters and the apportionment of resources between national defense and social welfare. What united them was, in general, a belief that government could intervene beneficially in the economy.
By the mid-1970s, race had receded as a divisive issue as more black voters in the South became enfranchised. Blue-collar districts continued to send Democrats to Congress. Beginning with the election of 1974, however, there began an influx of Democrats who were as likely to have business executives as their constituents as they were to have assembly-line workers. By the 1980s, the new breed had established an intellectual beachhead in the party and began to challenge some of the eternal party verities. One traditional Democratic piety they did not buy into was uncritical support of union issues.
They challenged the view that American industry, now under spirited competition from Europe and Asia, needed protection. They postulated a future for American industry that was based on advanced technologies and, most heretically of all, they argued that the loss of American jobs in older sectors of the economy was inevitable and offered as palliatives for the disappearance of high-wage factory jobs only the promise of employment growth in high-tech enterprises. They were also, devoutly and emphatically, free-traders.
Dubbed variously “neo-liberals,” “the new breed,” or traditional sobriquets that are unprintable here, these House Democrats formed the nucleus of the Democratic Leadership Council and brought in as an early member the bright young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. Clinton’s association with the DLC made him no favorite of organized labor, which, in 1992, would have preferred Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a true exhorter of the old-time Democratic religion.
NAFTA is not the first issue over which the traditionalists and the new breed have done battle. When Democrats were toying with an industrial policy as a new centerpiece of party philosophy, the old believers locked horns with the new and fought them to a standstill by demanding that as much attention be paid to saving old industries as to promoting new ones.
In the leaders of the pro-NAFTA and anti-NAFTA forces in the House, we see a perfect personification of the fratricidal struggle of the party over trade issues. NAFTA’s team captain is Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, whose prosperous, white-collar constituents--a large number of them Republicans--care little for protectionism and see future American prosperity tied to world trade. In the other corner is Rep. David E. Bonoir of Macomb County, Mich., whose blue-collar voters are tied closely to the automobile industry whose unions have vowed a death struggle against the trade pact.
While both men were first elected to the House in the 1970s--Bonoir in 1976 and Matsui in 1978--Bonoir is the remembrancer of the New Deal and the Homeric age of American labor. Matsui is a Democrat of a decidedly different stripe, and whatever the outcome on NAFTA, it would not be surprising to see these two rising stars of the party on opposite sides of economic and trade issues in the future.
The skirmish lines in which they find themselves arrayed in opposing ranks over NAFTA are different from those that once divided the party. The divisive issues since the 1970s are ones relating to color. Not the color of skin but the color of collars.