President Bush sent the Democrats an important signal last week when he reminded reporters that Congress will have to decide this fall whether to sign off on trade deals with two more Latin American countries, Peru and Panama.
Back in May, the administration accepted the demand of congressional Democratic leaders to enforce labor and environmental standards as integral parts of those free trade agreements - ending a long stalemate on those questions.
But some liberal and labor Democrats are still voicing objections to the deals, and Rep. Sandy Levin, the chairman of the House trade subcommittee and one of the architects of the trade agreements, has just come back from a visit to Peru to assure its terms are being carried out.
The president was very clear about his views, saying that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab "will continue to work with the (Democratic) leadership and remind them of the importance of these trade bills. And they're now in charge of the Congress and they'll have a chance to prove whether or not they believe in opening these markets. ... It would be a huge mistake for the country if they don't."
But as the president acknowledged, the protectionist sentiment he has long opposed appears to be rising in Congress - and among the Democratic presidential candidates as well.
The House leadership cavalierly denied his request for the kind of "fast-track" negotiating authority that past presidents have enjoyed. That procedure limits Congress to an up-or-down vote on future trade deals, rather than rewriting them in detail.
As if that were not worrisome enough, the Democratic aspirants for president vied in their debate in Chicago last week to see who could be most irresponsible on trade issues.
The setting encouraged pandering; 17,000 union members filled seats at Soldier Field, mobilized by the AFL-CIO, which was dangling the prospect of labor endorsements and campaign funds in the primary battles just ahead.
The bar for applause lines was set high early in the proceedings when Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the longest of long shots, said, "it's time to get out of NAFTA (the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada) and the WTO (the World Trade Organization)."
That led moderator Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, apparently auditioning for the part of Lou Dobbs, to ask other candidates, "Scrap NAFTA or fix it?" as if those were the only alternatives.
Hillary Clinton was first. "NAFTA and the way it's been implemented has hurt a lot of American workers," she said. "So clearly we have to have a broad reform in how we approach trade. ... I voted against CAFTA (the Central America Free Trade Agreement). I don't want to give fast-track authority to this president."
Bill Richardson: "We should never have another trade agreement unless it enforces labor protection, environmental standards and job safety."
Barack Obama: "I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president (sic) of Canada to try to amend NAFTA, because I think we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now."
Joe Biden: "Hey, look, a president's job is to create jobs, not to export jobs, and the idea that we are not willing to take the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico to the mat to make this agreement work is just a lack of presidential leadership."
Chris Dodd: "I think this (NAFTA) requires modification. We also need to do something else here. ... We need to stop exporting the jobs in the country that already are here."
John Edwards: "It (NAFTA) needs to be fixed, but the first thing I want to say is NAFTA is a perfect example of the bigger problem. This deal was negotiated by Washington insiders, not by anybody in this stadium tonight. And the question is: When are we going to change it? It's cost us a million jobs."
All of that rhetoric would lead an incautious Democratic voter to expect this Democratic Congress to put NAFTA back on the legislative agenda. But don't hold your breath.
Levin told me Peru has agreed how its laws will be changed to guarantee "core labor standards."
As for any changes in NAFTA, Levin says, "That won't happen as long as Bush is president."
He is right. And one has to question how seriously to take any of these comments from the Democratic hopefuls. As Bush reminded reporters, NAFTA was negotiated by his father, the first President Bush, but was pushed through a Democratic Congress in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.
"NAFTA has made a difference in our hemisphere - a positive difference. ... NAFTA has worked," the president said. "What are they suggesting we fix?"
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at firstname.lastname@example.org.