I was watching former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers last night on PBS, and something he said stopped me cold.
“How did we get to a place where we have to buy all of this equipment from China?”, he asked, without a trace of irony.
The point of this post is not to pick on Summers. Would that we had him in office today. Nonetheless, I was stunned to hear those words come out of his mouth.
Because I was in DC for two stints, the Spring of 1986, and 1990-1993. I met then Rep. Barbara Boxer at an intern event. She spoke about the leadership of Nancy Pelosi regarding China. What was she talking about?
It has largely been forgotten, but Nancy Pelosi was on a mission in the 1980’s. What was it? She was determined to stop the headlong rush to expand the opening to China started by Richard Nixon in the 1970’s. This was her single issue. The Reagan administration had expanded the policy of opening China to the west, to endless approval and acclaim in official Washington, with the exception of a few anti-communist diehards on the right, and a significant faction then-considered to be on the far left of the Democratic Party.
What was the issue? Human rights. Nancy Pelosi was determined to insist that we use the then-tremendous American economic leverage to make improvements in political and personal rights in China a strong condition of any further increase in trade and American investment. She also agreed with those who saw the gold rush as having significant long term risks to our own economy, including the erosion of our own manufacturing base and the undermining of American wages (although she was always very open to free trade). She put all of her chips on this issue.
She lost fully and finally not until the 1990’s, when Bill Clinton and his Treasury Secretary sided with the pro-China lobby. So my ears stung to hear that same official citing with wonder how it could be that we no longer manufacture the life-saving masks that our health heroes so badly need today.
Few seem to remember this lost crusade by Pelosi, least of all today’s lazy critics on the left, who blithely call her “The Establishment”, totally oblivious to the background and commitment of the Speaker to human rights. (Although with the steady and strong leadership she has shown this past year, there seems to be an increasing if begrudging respect for Pelosi now on the left.)
True enough, the practical politician that she is, she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and lived to fight – and win – another day. More than one.
But this is who Nancy Pelosi is. And I, for one, wish we had listened to her then.