When Howard Dean dropped out of the race on Wednesday, the two remaining candidates sought to distinguish themselves in the minds of voters by focusing on one issue: Trade. It's what Edwards believes helped lift him to within six points of the front-runner in Wisconsin after he spent days before the primary railing about NAFTA and criticizing Kerry for his Senate vote on the trade pact back when Edwards was still a trial lawyer in North Carolina. And it's clearly on the minds of many Americans, especially the working class convinced their jobs have fled overseas, as a sub-category of larger worries about jobs and the economy.
In Ohio, a Super Tuesday primary state and critical general election swing state, the news from the Cleveland Plain Dealer today was that 46,000 manufacturing jobs lost in Ohio since 1999 were lost due to international trade, primarily NAFTA. Last week, under political pressure and on a campaign trip to Pennsylvania, where job losses are all too real, President Bush had to distance himself from his chief economic adviser for suggesting "outsourcing" jobs could be positive in the long run for the economy.
This morning, the major newspapers detailed the jockeying between Edwards and Kerry, with Edwards saying there's a "significant difference" between the candidates on the issue -- he says he'd renegotiate NAFTA as president to protect U.S. workers -- and Kerry insisting they're really quite similar. "We have the same policy on trade -- exactly the same policy," says Kerry, who frequently calls employers who ship jobs abroad "Benedict Arnolds." Teamsters president James P. Hoffa, who once slighted Kerry for supporting NAFTA and other trade agreements, is now trying to protect him from political retribution from union voters, saying "everybody evolves."
But is free trade as an issue a campaign winner for Democrats? A Washington Post piece today says that even as Edwards and Kerry make job loss and international trade centerpieces of their campaigns, "even some of the candidates' economic advisers acknowledge that remedies offered -- such as closing tax loopholes on overseas income and offering tax breaks for domestic hiring -- would probably do little to stop the bleeding." An Economist piece, critical of what it sees as a new era of protectionism in the U.S., says all three candidates for president, Edwards, Kerry and Bush, are falling, at least publicly, for the "hollowing out" myth that outsourcing is bleeding the U.S. of jobs. Still, in a climate where voters say they are most concerned about the economy, and in an era of historic job losses, appearing insensitive on this issue in the 2004 campaign could be political suicide.