Politics & Policy

Trading Down

Hillary vs. Bill on free trade.

Hillary Clinton may be an object for revulsion on the part of many conservatives, but give her credit for achieving something that few thought possible. With Hillary’s recent bashing of free trade, she’s made her NAFTA-backing husband look like a good guy — even among those on the right side of the political spectrum.

It all started last month, during a speech in Iowa, in which Hillary called for U.S. trade agreements to be reviewed every five years, and for “adjustments” to be made where they are found lacking.

But, it’s continued this month, too. First, Hillary came out against trade deals with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea still awaiting congressional approval. Then, last week, she told union activists in Iowa that as president, she’d pursue “smart trade,” and call a timeout on trade agreements. Most recently, during last week’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas, she stated that NAFTA had been a mistake. It’s rhetoric that shows Hillary’s protectionist leanings — which despite her claims of centrism have been on display for some time now, for anyone who has bothered to look.

On the campaign trail, Hillary has frequently attempted to tie herself to Bill’s coattails. But, take a look at her record in the Senate and it becomes obvious that trade is one area of policy where the Clintons part ways. True, Hillary did vote for trade deals with Oman, Chile, and Singapore. She has also stated her support for the Peru free-trade deal, which passed the House earlier this month and on which the Senate will soon vote. But, Hillary also voted against CAFTA and 2002’s Trade Act, and in favor of legislation penalizing China for currency-rigging and limiting the U.S. authority to negotiate within the WTO.

That’s a decidedly more protectionist record than that of Hillary’s husband. Not only was Bill a chief cheerleader for NAFTA, which Hillary now describes as having “serious shortcomings” and wants reviewed ahead of any other trade deal, but he was also the guy who wanted free trade zones covering the entirety of the Americas, and circling the Pacific Rim. In addition, he pushed hard for China to enter the WTO. Somehow, it’s tough to see Hillary, with her votes and her recent statements, coming close to a record like that. And, make no mistake — America could well end up being the poorer for it.

Free trade is a popular scapegoat for economic insecurities these days. NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls from this year show that 54 percent of Democratic voters think free trade agreements have hurt the U.S., and that 60-percent of Republicans similarly believe that foreign trade has been bad for the country.

Yet, according to Daniel Griswold, Director of the CATO Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, the opposite of what many Americans apparently think, is true. In a recent paper, he argues that in the wake of trade expansion and increased globalization, the standard of living for a large swath of Americans has actually improved, not worsened. While in the last decade, during which trade has expanded, America has experienced a net loss of 3.3 million manufacturing jobs. Additionally, Griswold says that we’ve seen a net gain of 11.6 million jobs in sectors in which the average wage is higher than in the manufacturing industry. So, trade has been good for America, not bad — and in hindsight, any objective observer would agree that Bill was smart, not foolish, to embrace it.

Hillary disagrees. Perhaps it’s John Edwards, running to her left and cozying up to unions. Perhaps it’s those 54-percent of Democrats who think free trade has been bad, and whose support Hillary would desperately like to garner, so that she can have the backing of 60, 70, even 80-percent of the party heading into next year’s primaries. Perhaps it’s that for all Hillary’s attempts to depict herself as the moderate, sensible choice among the Democratic field, she actually is not so moderate or sensible after all.

One can only guess. What is certain is that with her left turn on trade, Hillary has accomplished a feat previously unimaginable. In the age of Hill, amazingly, even economic conservatives are left longing for Bill.

– Liz Mair is a political commentator and consultant from Arlington, Va. She writes daily at www.lizmair.com.


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