Washington Protesters Change IMF Atmospherics

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The patchwork alliance of anti-IMF demonstrators has brought business-as-usual in Washington grinding to a halt, but its impact insidethe corridors of power may be more diffuse. The federal government Monday gave its employees who work in the vicinity of the World Bank and IMF headquarters the day off, as police continued to battle mostly peaceful protesters challenging the international financial system and demanding debt relief for the world's poorest countries. Heavy-handed policing has, however, for the most part allowed the annual meetings of the bank and fund to proceed unmolested. Still, images of riot policemen dragging young Americans off the streets of the nation's capital, and of blue-collar workers making common cause with turtle-hugging environmentalists has reinforced the idea, in the public mind, that there are many Americans unconvinced about the virtues of globalization. "Like the earlier Seattle protests over trade, the Washington protests have certainly put issues of the world economy on the map of U.S. domestic politics," says TIME Washington correspondent Adam Zagorin. "They've raised the political profile of globalization as an issue, particularly the fact that it produces both winners and losers, and they've increased pressure to take care of the losers rather than simply ignore them."

It's easy, of course, for those in power to — as President Clinton did in Seattle last December — agree wholeheartedly with the concerns of the demonstrators, and then simply continue business as usual. This time, the President remained discreetly out of town, and his treasury secretary, Larry Summers, met with representatives of a number of non-governmental organizations before the weekend to underline the administration's efforts to bring the citizenry in on the discussion. But with both leading presidential candidates being free-trade boosters and Pat Buchanan's conservatism making him politically unpalatable to the bulk of the protesters despite his own hostility to international financial institutions, the protest movement may have little direct impact on U.S. presidential politics. But it's a heads-up to the professional politicians on both sides of Capitol Hill that a growing, and increasingly active, body of citizens is no longer prepared to allow even the most arcane of trade and fiscal policy issues to remain the exclusive preserve of Washington policy experts.