CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Representative Richard A. Gephardt yesterday sharpened his criticism of a Democratic presidential rival, Howard Dean, on the issue of trade.
Gephardt said Dean's support for "bad trade deals" while governor of Vermont had caused that state's exports to fall.
"Now, Howard Dean says he supported NAFTA because he was the governor of Vermont and he was doing what was good for his state," Gephardt said in a speech on trade at a Teamsters Union hall in Cedar Rapids. "Well, if you check the record on that, you will see that as a result of NAFTA and the other bad trade deals he supported, exports in Vermont are down 38 percent."
Gephardt's campaign cited the Progressive Policy Institute, a research arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, as the source of the figure, which covers 2000 to 2002, as well as a labor think tank's report that found Vermont had lost 6,213 jobs between 1994 and 2000 because of foreign trade. Dean held the governor's job from 1991 until January of this year.
Dean -- who, recent polls suggest, is neck-and-neck with the Missouri Democrat in Iowa -- has said he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement if he becomes president.
Sarah Leonard, his Iowa campaign spokeswoman, fired back yesterday, saying: "As usual, Dick Gephardt's Washington insider handbook has steered him wrong. NAFTA was good for Vermont; it created thousands of jobs." She said independent studies have shown that Vermont exports held steady from 1993 to 2000 and that the Green Mountain state and many others suffered export losses in the declining economy after President Bush took office.
Gephardt's campaign billed the speech as a "major policy address," but as with an earlier speech on Medicare and Social Security, the only new ground broken was political -- a dart fired at Dean in Iowa, a virtual must-win state for Gephardt in the Jan. 19, 2004, caucuses.
Most of the speech focused on Gephardt's proposal to internationalize the minimum wage through the World Trade Organization as a way to protect American workers from competition with foreign workers paid "a few dollars a day."
"I am the only candidate in this race who voted against NAFTA," Gephardt said. Senators John F. Kerry and Joseph I. Lieberman and former senator Carol Moseley Braun voted for NAFTA, and Dean supported it and permanent trade relations with China.
"Senators Kerry, Lieberman, and [John] Edwards all voted for the recent China trade deal. Most disappointing on this issue was Senator Edwards," Gephardt said of his opponent from North Carolina.
"The Carolinas have been devastated by our current trade policies," he said, because of cheap imports.
"Ask yourself a question: Would we still have many of these textile jobs and furniture jobs if Congress had not passed Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China -- the China trade deal? The answer is yes."
Gephardt, who has been called a protectionist since he advocated punitive trade sanctions during his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1988, said yesterday that he supports free trade. But foreign workers earning "a few dollars a day" put their American counterparts at a disadvantage.
"Our trade policies remind me of the Red Sox sending Babe Ruth to the Yankees; they're bad deals that haunt us for decades," he said.
He closed the speech with a thinly veiled shot at Dean, who has cast himself as the Washington outsider in the race. "Self-proclaimed `outsider' candidates come and go," he said, "but when it comes to foreign trade, at least in Washington anyway, I have felt like the outsider for decades."