Sen. Sherrod Brown, Fair Trade over Free Trade Sherrod Brown is the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio since 1992. Brown says voters responded to Democratic promises to help a struggling middle class.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, Fair Trade over Free Trade

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Yeah, we're interviewing Democrats this week about what their party stands for, and we're going to start with Sherrod Brown, the first Democrat elected to the United States Senate in Ohio since 1992. He won in part because of Republican scandals, but he says voters also responded to Democratic promises to help a struggling middle class.

Senator SHERROD BROWN (Democrat, Ohio): I think Ohio has in some sense gotten there first, that Ohioans have had a tougher time because of plant closings, because so many people have lost their health benefits. Ohioans, I think in large numbers, have felt that the government has not been on their side in all of these issues: on pensions, on the cost of prescription drugs, on the healthcare system generally, on jobs, on trade agreements where people feel these job-killing trade agreements have really squeezed the middle class and caused lots of people to lose their middle class status, if you will.

INSKEEP: Senator, you mentioned trade agreements. I want to mention the title of a book you wrote not necessarily to plug it but just to underline something that Democrats may be discussing intensely amongst themselves before they even get around to debating Republicans. The book is called “Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed.” There are a lot of your fellow Democrats who favor free trade.

Sen. BROWN: The overwhelming number of Democrats - Democratic voters, Democratic House members, now Democratic senators and the entire freshman class of Democratic senators - think our trade policy has gone in the wrong direction. They think that our trade policy encourages companies to leave the country; they think our trade policy has caused more and more businesses to outsource. I am certain that we will see a very different Democratic Party and a very different Republican Party when it comes to trade, because voters in both parties - a lot of Republicans voted for me, frankly, because of my position on trade. The voters in both parties understand our trade policy truly has betrayed the middle class.

INSKEEP: Do you think there are enough Democrats who feel as you do, that further free trade agreements are dead for the moment?

Sen. BROWN: I think that the fast-track legislation that the president has asked for is dead on arrival. We will push for a very different fast-track kind of process.

INSKEEP: We should explain this. This is where the president asks you for authority to negotiate whatever deal he can and that deal is almost automatically accepted.

Sen. BROWN: Correct. I mean, you know, I think that some of the bilateral trade agreements - some of the smaller ones, it's unclear. But there will be no major bilateral trade agreements that pass the House and Senate unless there are solid environmental and labor standards, food safety standards. There's simply no reason that this Congress and our government should protect the drug companies but not protect workers, that they should protect Hollywood films and not protect the environment.

And that's an overwhelming sentiment in this freshmen class. And it's known in both parties in both Houses. It's an overwhelming sentiment now in the majority in both houses overall.

INSKEEP: Is there a danger of this being any kind of distraction for Democrats, because you still do have what we could call the Bill Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, which for example pushed for the NAFTA free trade agreement?

Sen. BROWN: That was 15 years ago. The so-called Bill Clinton wing in the Democratic Party has evolved into the mainstream Democrats, which we are, that say that we need trade agreements with environmental and labor standards. There has been an evolution since China in the late ‘90s. There's been an evolution among almost all Democrats that these trade agreements simply need to be constructed in a different way for fair trade, not for free trade.

INSKEEP: Can you identify for me some little bipartisan piece of common ground on free trade? If you're across the table from a senator - Republican or Democrat - who is just convinced the opposite of what you're convinced, that free trade is good for the country even if it hurts some people, is there some little bit of common ground there?

Sen. BROWN: I think there's tremendous common ground in trade. I sat next to in our first joint caucus meeting with Larry Craig of Idaho. And he and I worked closely together in opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Sometimes we had difference reasons to oppose that trade agreement, but there is so much common ground with Lindsey Graham in the Senate, with Walter Jones in the House, others. We will find lots to work on on these trade agreements, lots of common ground. So I think we come down on the same place in opposition to bad trade agreements and in support of good trade agreements.

INSKEEP: Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Thank you very much.

Sen. BROWN: Thank you very, very much.

And NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts has been listening. And Cokie, is the notion of cracking down on free trade a winning issue for Democrats?

COKIE ROBERTS: It is in some states and in some districts. But it's on long-term loser; it puts them essentially on the wrong side of history with globalization. And even the labor unions often lose in trade agreements, consumers gain. And so the Democrats have to be very careful here. And there's a lot of division among Democrats on this issue.

INSKEEP: OK. Cokie, thanks very much. We'll continue watching that issue and others. And we'll continue our series of conversations this week on what the Democratic Party stands for. Tomorrow, we will hear from an Iraq war veteran newly elected to the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. And of course you can find more coverage of the new Congress at npr.org.

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