Politics & Policy

For Clinton and Obama, the Trade Trap

It happens when you believe one thing and say another.

What were the odds that a top Obama adviser, and then the top Clinton adviser, would find themselves in trouble with their respective campaigns over the issue of trade?

Pretty good, actually. Next to race, trade has become the most explosive issue in the Democratic presidential contest. And especially at a time when Hillary Clinton is trying to build on her win in Ohio with a last-chance victory in Pennsylvania.

It’s no accident that Austan Goolsbee, the top Obama adviser who told Canadian officials not to worry about Obama’s anti-NAFTA posturing, became an issue during the campaign in economically troubled Ohio. And it’s no accident that Mark Penn, the top Clinton strategist who has been demoted over his private-business promotion of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, has found himself in hot water in the midst of campaigning in Pennsylvania.

The two controversies point up one central fact: Many staffers and surrogates, in both campaigns, simply don’t believe what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are saying about NAFTA, and free trade in general, on the campaign trail. But they can’t say so. “A lot of them are free traders, but during the Democratic primaries they stay in the closet,” one Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with either campaign told me Monday. “More the Clinton campaign than the Obama campaign, but probably both.”

When I asked Will Marshall, a key figure in the centrist New Democrat movement and head of the Progressive Policy Institute, what was going on, he seemed genuinely dismayed. “There has been a kind of willing suspension of rationality when it comes to the trade debate,” Marshall told me. “Apparently, the rule is that in the primaries, facts and evidence don’t matter, so bashing trade becomes a way of validating the emotions of people who feel stressed by global competition, and the facts get trampled underfoot in the process.”

But are serious figures in the Clinton and Obama campaigns saying things about trade that they simply don’t believe? “I can’t say that,” Marshall says. “But it seems unlikely that either a President Obama or a President Clinton would waste their political capital in their first 100 days trying to reopen a 15-year-old trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. I think it’s implausible that the next administration is going to try to renegotiate NAFTA. So let people draw their own conclusions.”

The reasons for the campaigns’ dissimulations/lies/exaggerations are pretty clear. In Ohio, exit pollsters asked Democratic primary voters whether U.S. trade with other countries creates jobs or loses jobs. Eighty percent of Democratic voters said it loses jobs, while ten percent said it creates jobs and six percent said it had no effect. The Pennsylvania exit polls, after the April 22 primary, will probably show similar results.

So the candidates keep bashing free trade. At the Democratic debate in Cleveland, Ohio, Clinton and Obama seemed locked in a contest to see who could hate NAFTA more. Now, with Pennsylvania approaching, they’re staying tough. “I am disappointed that President Bush has decided to send the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress,” Clinton said in a statement yesterday. “The United States should be pursuing trade agreements that promote human rights and worker rights, not overlook egregious abuses.”

“I think the president is absolutely wrong on this,” Obama said of the Colombia agreement a few days ago. “You’ve got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supporter violence against unions, against labor, against opposition.”

All that is no doubt playing well in Pennsylvania. But what about the general election? Democrats downplay any concerns. “The truth is, this is like a family feud, the family being the Democratic party,” the unaffiliated strategist told me. “It has no impact on general election voters.” From Will Marshall: “I doubt that Republicans can exploit it. But one hopes there will be a discussion of what government can actually do to raise the floor of security beneath American workers.”

Republicans see things differently. Why can’t John McCain continue to say, as he has throughout the primary campaign, that NAFTA is something that has brought more products at lower prices to millions and millions of Americans, and that Democrats want to take that away? Wouldn’t that be an effective campaign appeal in most of America? “It’s useful to us — a clear contrast,” Doug Holtz-Eakin, who is McCain’s top economic adviser, told me. “We’re happy to have this fight over the Colombia Free Trade Agreement now, and we’re happy to have it over NAFTA going forward.”

McCain talked free trade in Michigan, where it wasn’t popular — and he lost. So what about Ohio, which will be a key state this November? “The key has always been that you earn people’s respect, and then you get their vote,” Holtz-Eakin told me. “You don’t earn their respect by pandering. There is an enormous business in Ohio thriving from selling things to Canada, and they know it.” And in addition to being the right thing to say, McCain’s free trade would have one added advantage: He actually believes it. And that will give him a big edge over his Democratic opponent.

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