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The Democrats' Mexican Roadblock

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Thursday, August 2, 2001; Page A19

When the House of Representatives voted to ban Mexican trucks from traveling more than 20 miles north of the U.S. border, I was in Mexico. But now that the Senate is putting up its own roadblock, I feel like I'm on Mars.

Suddenly, it is the Democrats who -- as Republicans are prone to do with regard to immigration and English-only laws -- are advancing their own interests by sounding racist notions of Mexican inferiority. Suddenly, it is the Republicans who defend the disparaged by calling discrimination by its proper name -- as Democrats delight in doing when the issue at hand is affirmative action or racial profiling.

The House vote in June set the stage for my interviews with Mexican officials who, at the time, called the bill a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and suggested that Mexico might retaliate. After all, the arbitration panel that settles NAFTA disputes had ruled in February that any attempt to ban the trucks from the United States was a violation of the agreement.

Not to be outdone, the Senate yesterday approved legislation that would impose strict safety and insurance requirements on Mexican trucks bound for U.S. highways -- 22 more than are required of American or Canadian counterparts, critics contend. And this could set off a trade war.

The controversy is less about safety than about nationalism, and the first to notice it were Republicans.

"It is wrong for the Congress to discriminate against Mexican trucks," President Bush told reporters as the Senate was debating the issue. "Our Mexican counterparts frankly should be treated just like the Canadians are treated."

Yeah, that could happen -- about the time the United States returns Texas and California.

Bush has threatened to veto any measure that insults our neighbors to the south and continues to deny Mexican-registered trucks the access to U.S. roadways that was called for in the free trade agreement. That access was supposed to take place in 2000; Bush has set a new target date -- Jan. 1.

The latest stall tactic is an offensive amendment to a funding bill for the Transportation Department. Proposed by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and backed by all of the Senate's Democrats, the legislation is country-specific. It requires Mexico -- and only Mexico -- to jump through additional safety hoops; Americans and Canadians need not comply.

Objecting, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi blasted Democrats for harboring an attitude that was "anti-Mexican, anti-Hispanic, anti-NAFTA." Wounded Democrats then demonstrated that they much prefer playing the race card to having it played against them. Murray disputed the discrimination charge, while Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he was "disappointed" by Lott's remarks.

The disappointing part is that not enough people saw what Daschle couldn't admit: Lott is right. Democrats, in chauffeuring unions such as the Teamsters, who are intent on running Mexican competitors off the road, employed condescending rhetoric that sounded anti-Mexican. After all, the never-say-die protectionists who want to fight the NAFTA battle all over again assume that Mexico's safety requirements are inferior to those of the United States or Canada. In fact, NAFTA rules set the standards for all three countries, and some trucking industry experts insist there is little difference between Mexican trucks and their NAFTA cohorts.

The media, obsessed with an assumption that Bush is using one issue after another to win the Hispanic vote, have hardly noticed that Democrats, with regard to one issue after another, seem determined to lose it. The party of Franklin Roosevelt has recently been at odds with Hispanics on vouchers, bilingual education, redistricting and the president's faith-based initiative.

That giant sucking sound is the draining of confidence among Hispanics that the modern Democratic Party has, at heart, any interests but its own. And when those interests conflict with those of Hispanics, it is hasta la vista.

That was predictable. Each chess move by the Republican-controlled White House prompts an opposing move by Democrats in Congress. Unfortunately, for Democrats, Bush has been moving in sync with the interests of many Hispanics.

So when Bush pursues an initiative popular with Hispanics, what do Democrats do? They oppose him and put themselves further outside the Hispanic mainstream.

A recent Gallup Poll found 59 percent of Hispanics approve of Bush's performance thus far. All the more reason that the Democrats shouldn't let the Mexican truck issue run over them.

2001 The Washington Post Company


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