NAFTA Stance Hurts Obama and Clinton in Silicon Valley; Boosts McCain

1st February 20087:56 am

I cringed yesterday as I watched Senators Obama and Clinton duke it out in Ohio over who is more anti-NAFTA. The whole thing left me wondering if the candidates realize they may be jeopardizing their ability to win California in the general election. To be sure, the stridently anti-NAFTA rhetoric plays well in certain sectors, including some rust bucket states. But it’s poison here in Silicon Valley and, if it continues, the anti-trade rhetoric could help push Silicon Valley’s generally moderate money and power base toward the likely GOP nominee, Senator John McCain, come November. It’s that serious.

Don’t get me wrong. I am sure NAFTA can and should be improved. It would certainly be fair for the Democratic presidential candidates to call for improving NAFTA. No problem there. What’s alarming, though, and potentially damaging, is all the heated anti-trade rhetoric emerging from the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates as they angle for support from John Edwards voters in these last few crucial do or die primaries. Unfortunately, this latest stage of the competition has left both candidates sounding like protectionists (note to presidential candidates: protectionism has very few fans in places such as Silicon Valley).

As they compete for support in Ohio, Obama and Clinton risk losing the support they’ll need to put California in the win column in the general election. Clinton’s proposal to impose a moratorium on trade agreements, for example, throws the anti-NAFTAs some red meat at the cost, if implemented, of increasing instability in critical world markets that are vital to the economic health of Silicon Valley. At the same time, Obama’s repeated strong assurances that he never, ever, ever supported NAFTA creates the impression that the Senator from Illinois, who has a very thin economic policy resume, may not even support the basic idea of free trade. It also raises the question of whether there was, or is, any version of NAFTA that could gain his support. After all, even the most ardent NAFTA critics usually can envision some circumstances under which they would permit the residents of poor nations to sell stuff to the most prosperous economy in the world.

Let’s be clear about this. Companies in Silicon Valley need continued access to global markets to succeed. It’s a life or death issue for them. What’s more, the leaders of these companies could play a decisive role in determining whether California’s electoral votes go to the Democratic nominee, be it Obama or Clinton, or to the GOP’s John McCain. These influential, wealthy — and mostly progressive — business leaders want a president who champions the development of global markets. They want a president who understands what those growing international markets make possible, including higher environmental, labor and human rights standards over time and the economic integration that enhances global cooperation and, ultimately, the prospects for peace. They also want a president who talks honestly about the way the global economy works, someone unafraid to describe the perils inherent in retreating from those markets, as well as the difficulty of using external pressure to impose environmental or labor standards on trading partners and the need to develop new ways to encourage progress in those areas.

On trade issues, however, Senators Clinton and Obama are beginning to sound a lot like Ross Perot. If this keeps up, industry leaders here in Silicon Valley may soon gravitate to John McCain.


February 20, 2008

Stanford Finally Waives Tuition for Middle Income Families: It’s About Time

Today’s news that Stanford University plans, at long last, to waive tuition for students from lower and middle income families is so overdue, so incredibly overdue, the appropriate response is not “right on!” but “what on earth took them so long?”

Along with many others, I started pushing for this morally imperative move more than a decade ago.

Stanford’s decision to finally do the right thing comes so late as to be a permanent embarrassment. Let’s remember that it comes after Harvard and many other top colleges made similar changes in policy and after a U.S. Senator, a Republican at that, indicated he might hold hearings on the students-last endowment management policies at institutions such as Stanford. Facing competitive pressures for the best students, and a possible Senate hearing that would have been highly embarrassing, Stanford finally caved in and did what it should have done decades ago.

In each of the essays I’ve written on this topic I asked a variation on the following question: “How much money does Stanford, and similar private schools, feel they need to have in their endowments before they will be willing to spend some of that money to provide free educational opportunities to the needy students whose faces are used on their fund raising brochures?”

Apparently the correct answer was $17.1 billion.


February 14, 2008

My Favorite Tom Lantos Story

I managed to watch a bit of today’s congressional memorial service for Tom Lantos. The speakers included rock star Bono, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Speaker of the House, the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Secretary of State, among others. What a fitting tribute for such a fine and decent man, someone I admired greatly from our very first encounter nearly 30 years ago.

His death had me thinking today about my favorite Tom Lantos story.

Tom was running his first race for Congress against a GOP incumbent, Bill Royer, in what was generally a pretty good year for Republicans. As I recall, Tom, an economics professor at the time, wasn’t really a long shot in that particular race, per se, but he certainly was an underdog and a pretty clear one at that. His first election to Congress was no sure thing.

Way back then I hosted a local radio news program called Feedback with Hal Plotkin on KPEN 97.7FM, a small WKRP in Cincinnati-ish radio station housed in the long since demolished Old Mill Shopping Center in Mountain View. KPEN was a tiny, 3000-watt commercial station whose very limited reach by happenstance was roughly contiguous with the congressional district in which Tom was running. As a result, Tom and his GOP opponent were frequent guests on my program, with Tom continuing those semi-regular appearances after he was elected.

One of my favorite memories from those days is something that happened during what I think was Tom’s first appearance on my show. Tom arrived at our studio with his wife Annette at his side (they always traveled together, I never saw them apart) about a month or so before that first election. Outside, it was raining hard. Tom was obviously pumped up, very eager to talk about the issues of the day, what he thought was at stake, his positions, and why the election mattered. He had worked himself up into an eloquent frenzy which I dared not interrupt with a commercial as he ticked off the obstacles to human progress along with his detailed plans to overcome them. He talked emphatically about his desire to champion human rights and about the moral obligations of the individual. And he talked about his tight, uphill political fight.

About that time, right in the middle of our live program, my sound engineer, who had apparently been trying to get my attention, knocked on the window that separated the studio from the control room. “The tower’s down,” he shouted. “We’ve been knocked off the air.”

Tom turned immediately to Annette. “Did you hear that?,” he asked, his courtly Hungarian accent suddenly edged with fear, excitement and determination. “Somebody’s blown up the transmitter!”

The year was 1980. But I got the sense that for a moment or two there Tom and Annette were transported back in time to Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, where seeking political power was a dangerous game and politics was not a hobby. Tom was deadly serious.

My engineer laughed as I quickly told Tom and Annette that foul play was unlikely. Instead, I explained to them that our little station was pretty regularly off the air thanks to transmitter woes caused by anything from a stiff wind to an amorous squirrel. I think at one point our transmitter was held together by a jock strap. Tom relaxed some when he heard this information but I am not quite sure he really believed it. Although, I think Annette did.

We taped the rest of that interview and broadcast it when the tower was repaired, later that night. I interviewed Tom, and visited with his delightful wife, Annette, many times before I left KPEN a few years later. He was always one of my favorite interviews. I even started bringing bagels and lox to some of those sessions in hopes he and Annette would stick around afterwards, which they often did.

I’m sorry I did not get a chance to visit with Tom in more recent years, which he spent primarily on the national and international stage. But I’ll always look back on my chance to cover his first race for Congress as a very special opportunity to be a witness to history. Tom became a powerful voice for the powerless. It’s sad to see him go.


February 06, 2008

Obama’s Best Line of the Night: “We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.”