Politics & Policy

How Bill Clinton Could Hurt Hillary in Iowa

Bill Clinton campaigns in Des Moines, Iowa, October 24, 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty)

With the Democratic race in Iowa tightening, Bill Clinton is preparing a whirlwind tour through the state to shore up Hillary Clinton’s slipping support. Over four stops on Thursday, the former president will bank on his considerable popularity with the Democratic base to sway voters against Bernie Sanders’s insurgent populism.

Not all Iowa Democrats are nostalgic for the 1990s, however. In a state with a heavy manufacturing presence and a powerful organized-labor lobby, union workers still hiss the word “NAFTA” as if it were a curse. These workers blame the 1994 trade deal — and the Clinton White House that ratified it — for sharp declines in jobs and wages in the past two decades, and Bill Clinton’s presence in the state won’t convince them to fall in line behind his wife’s campaign. In fact, if Sanders’s Tuesday-morning speech to the Des Moines chapter of the United Steelworkers Union is any indication, Clinton’s last-minute campaign swing could have the opposite effect.

“You don’t have to look very far down the road to Newton, Iowa, where our Maytag plant closed and devastated that town and those folks in that city. That was NAFTA,” said USW Local 310 president Steve Vonk as he introduced Sanders, his voice dripping with contempt. “And we know where that all came from.”

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Later, away from the podium, Vonk explains that Clinton’s family history makes him second-guess her change of heart on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the latest free-trade deal working its way through Washington. “NAFTA was signed by her husband,” he tells National Review. “She called TPP the ‘gold standard’ of all trade deals not that long ago. Until Bernie called her out on the issue, she was fully for it. Now she says she won’t sign it as it’s written now.”

“She’ll sign it — and we all know that — eventually,” Vonk says. “That’s my biggest issue.”

NAFTA isn’t an unfamiliar political problem for Clinton — she and her husband fielded similar complaints from disgruntled workers during her failed Iowa campaign in 2008. And on Tuesday, Sanders showed he’s prepared to use the Clinton family’s free-trade history to his advantage, wielding it as a wedge to move factory workers over to his side in the hotly contested caucuses. “These trade agreements have been supported not just by Republicans, but some Democrats as well,” he told the assembled union members. “We have to acknowledge that.”

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He made it clear which Democrats he was referring to in a press gaggle after the speech. “You are looking at a senator and a former congressman who has led the effort, since his first days in the 1990s, against disastrous trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, and today with the TPP,” he said. “My record on trade is very different than Secretary Clinton’s.”

#share#Clinton racked up endorsements from prominent labor unions such as SEIU and AFSCME late last year, leaving Sanders struggling to pick up the scraps. But the perception that those unions’ establishment-friendly leaders had thumbed the scale for Clinton rankled many of their rank-and-file members, even though the service industry has been less affected by the foreign competition that so threatens Iowa’s manufacturing jobs.

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It remains an open question whether enough Iowa union members will be convinced that Hillary Clinton was complicit in NAFTA, and that her promises on the TPP can’t be trusted as a result. “It’s something [workers] are always very concerned about, but I don’t think they are necessarily going to blame Hillary for the actions of her husband,” says Norm Sterzenbach, an unaffiliated Democratic strategist in Iowa. “At this point, all they can really do is take people at their word.”

#related#But Sanders’s push to tar Clinton with the NAFTA brush is already changing minds. Wilbur Wilson, the president of Local 310’s retirees’ club and a caucus-precinct chair, says he was going to caucus for Hillary, but had a change of heart after hearing Sanders speak on Tuesday.

“I’ve followed his career for 20 years, and he’s always stood up for the working guys,” Wilson says. “He’s been against these trade deals that have absolutely devastated us.”

His assessment of the Clintons is less complimentary.

“The trade deals, ya know, Bill Clinton brought us the first one, he brought us NAFTA. And I haven’t forgot that.”

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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