If history had repeated itself, as it often does, this is how things would have turned out with the House of Representatives’ vote on Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China.
If history had repeated itself, as it often does, this is how
things would have turned out with the House of Representatives’ vote on
Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China.
Labor mounts a vigorous push to defeat the agreement. Business responds
slowly and less aggressively in support, leading an AFL-CIO spokesperson
to insist: ’The dollar for dollar doesn’t matter. We have the ability to
mobilize working families in congressional districts all over the
country.’ The vote keeps getting delayed, finally going down to
However, history didn’t repeat itself, and when AFL-CIO president John
Sweeney addressed his side’s failure, his explanation was simple: ’Big
Plenty of big budget campaigns become big busts. But although corporate
America spent much more to promote PNTR than it did on the ill-fated
1997-’98 campaign to grant the president fast-track negotiating
authority on trade treaties, it also spent smarter.
Stealing the PR playbook
White House and GOP leadership lobbying clearly contributed to PNTR’s
40-vote victory in the House. But another important factor was the
ability of the proponents to learn from the past - and from their
In the wake of the post-Seattle media hype and public anxiety over
globalization, PNTR proponents revised their PR playbook to demonstrate
grass-roots support for their message.
For all the emphasis that the proponents, which included America’s most
powerful business associations (notably the US Chamber of Commerce and
The Business Roundtable), and the opponents (the AFL-CIO and the
Steelworkers, United Auto Workers and Teamsters unions) placed on PNTR,
most Americans did not pay attention to the issue. In fact, Gallup
polling in early May showed 70% of Americans paying scant attention.
Economic Policy Institute visiting fellow David Kusnet notes that the
opponents and proponents of PNTR had different PR challenges. PNTR
opponents had significant support according to some polls but needed to
mobilize it, while PNTR proponents ’did not so much need to change
public opinion but to take the edge off it,’ he says.
An observer of the battle, Public Affairs Council president Doug
Pinkham, says the PNTR campaign provides a ’good example of the business
community getting its act together and coalescing around an issue.’ But
he believes the best public affairs efforts are not the last-minute,
pre-packaged ’Astroturf’ efforts but ones that start early, build and
educate a constituency, motivating members to take action.
That sort of grass-roots operation was missing in the 1997-’98
fast-track battle. That loss and the sense that the opponents of trade
liberalization had a strong grass-roots presence prompted organizations
like The Business Roundtable (BRT) to rethink their strategy.
The BRT’s board decided that it would make more sense to build a durable
grass-roots, pro-trade network than to mount stand-alone campaigns on a
vote-by-vote basis. BRT built such an organization, dubbed goTRADE, in
19 states and 88 targeted congressional districts and recruited
business, community and academic leaders to become local advocates for
When PNTR became a hot issue, the local advocates met with their members
of Congress during the Easter recess to emphasize the importance of
trade to the local economy. But it was more than a lobbying effort:
goTRADE members also met with local newspaper editorial boards and
submitted opinion pieces to be published in local newspapers.
Noting that labor advocates had taken advantage of a similar recess to
gain ground in another high-stakes trade fight, Business Roundtable
spokesperson John Schacter emphasizes that goTRADE was determined not to
lose support during that period. ’That was a key turning point,’ says
Schacter, ’because we gained votes and did not lose a single member who
was for or leaning toward PNTR.’
The US Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations mounted
similar grass-roots efforts. But the key factor was that these efforts
were accompanied by strong message development. As political scientists
Burdett Loomis and Darrell West explain in their book, The Sound of
Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want, the ’ability to
develop persuasive story lines often determines the success of a group
in influencing politics and policy making.’
According to Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Coalition for
American Trade, past campaigns involving trade tended to discuss only
the general economic benefits. This time, PNTR proponents emphasized the
potential benefits of trade to important economic sectors like the auto
industry and agriculture.
Tackling human rights
Those opposed to PNTR, meanwhile, stressed human rights issues. But BRT
parried this blow by issuing a report asserting that US business
operations in China had led to improved social, working and
Dissidents were featured in the advertising and news conferences
sponsored by BRT. ’There is no more powerful tool in China than trade
with America,’ one religious leader featured in a BTR advertisement
Ed Grefe, the president of Legislative Demographic Services, says that
this counterattack was an effective one. ’For the first time,’ says
Grefe, ’business has understood it needs to talk about philosophy in
addition to jobs. That makes it a more substantial case.’
Kusnet, a former Clinton White House speechwriter, thinks that ’the
opponents of PNTR won the debate but lost the vote.’ He explains: ’The
AFL, (House Democrat leaders) Richard Gephardt and David Bonior had with
the help of the grass-roots shifted the debate from one of
internationalism versus protectionism to one of what rules should there
be in an era of globalization.
If you shift the debate to that, we were in a battle for public
But sometimes public opinion doesn’t prevail.’
Polls produced varying results. A Peter Hart poll for the AFL-CIO
earlier this year showed 65% of Americans opposed to PNTR. An April 2000
Gallup Poll found a tight race. By the weekend before the vote, however,
public opinion had decisively shifted, with 56% in favor and 37%
Kusnet thinks the AFL-CIO and other PNTR opponents might have been more
effective if they had more money to spend on grass-roots endeavors. But
a labor PR consultant suggests that labor could have personalized its
messages by showing how NAFTA has hurt union members, then drawing the
same conclusion for China.
The invigorated pro-trade coalition made savvy use of grass-roots and PR
tactics to help carry the day on an important vote. But while it may
have won the battle, the trade war is by no means over. As Kusnet
insists, ’This is but one battle in a struggle that began with NAFTA,
continued with fast-track and the WTO in Seattle and will keep on
going.’ Both sides will no doubt see their PR and grass-roots organizing
tactics put to greater tests.