Clinton and Obama's NAFTA showdown

In Ohio, no points are awarded for a nuanced position on free trade.

Published February 25, 2008 7:08PM (EST)

In the fight for Ohio's working class, Sen. Barack Obama has striven mightily to associate Sen. Hillary Clinton with NAFTA, the trade agreement her husband worked so hard to pass during his first term in office. In the welter of NAFTA-related accusations and counter-accusations, YouTube videos and campaign mailers, misinformation abounds, but no one is disputing the political reality of Obama's sustained effort to portray Hillary Clinton as a one-time NAFTA sympathizer, and by extension, as partially responsible for Ohio's economic woes.

In so doing, his campaign has made at least one clear typographic misstep. Obama's campaign mailers accuse Hillary Clinton of saying that NAFTA was a "boon" for the American economy. But the quotation marks are misleading. In September 2006, Newsday used the word "boon" to characterize Clinton's position on NAFTA, but the newspaper has since acknowledged that there is no record of Clinton herself uttering the baleful word.

Of course, focusing on whether Clinton said or did not say the word "boon" doesn't prove anything with respect to Clinton's actual position on NAFTA, pro or con. The Clinton campaign has marshaled a fleet of Clinton administration veterans and biographers to make the case that Hillary Clinton was always opposed to NAFTA. In response, the Obama campaign points to several other instances in which the New York senator is allegedly on record as supporting the agreement. You can watch a YouTube excerpt here of Tim Russert declaring on "Meet the Press" last fall that in 2004, Hillary Clinton said, "I think, on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York and America." In 1996, the Associated Press reportedly quoted her as saying that "NAFTA is proving its worth." On Saturday, in Lorain, Ohio, Obama declared that "the fact is, she was saying great things about NAFTA until she started running for president." He didn't mention the word "boon."

But two can play at that game. The Clinton campaign, in response, is trumpeting a passage from the Decatur Herald and Review published in September 2004, in which the paper reported that "Obama said the United States benefits enormously from exports under the WTO and NAFTA."

So a pox on both their houses? Both candidates, fighting for their political lives in Ohio, are sharpening their anti-globalization rhetoric. Consider us shocked. But what do their actual voting records in the Senate tell us?

As far as differentiating one from the other: absolutely nothing.

Since Barack Obama joined the Senate in January 2005, he and Hillary Clinton have an identical voting record on significant trade-related issues. Both voted for free trade agreements with Bahrain and Oman, and both voted against CAFTA -- the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Both voted to prohibit Mexican trucks from operating in the U.S. (as provided for in NAFTA). And on Dec. 4, 2007, both failed to vote at all on a free trade agreement with Peru.

(In retrospect, although both candidates are on record as supporting the Peru FTA, one wonders whether they now regret not having shown up in Washington to vote against the agreement. Neither candidate would be shy to tout such a nay vote on the Ohio campaign trail right now, one imagines.)

Once again, we are faced with two candidates who are far more alike than they are different. Which is not to say it's impossible to make distinctions. Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, believes that Hillary Clinton has staked out a position slightly to the left of Barack Obama's. He cited her call for a trade "time out" as evidence.

"She has called for a moratorium, until we can sort out some of the problematic issues," said Bernstein. "He [Barack Obama] has not supported that. Hillary seems to recognize that these trade deals end up being agreements between our rich people and their rich people and leave out workers on both sides of the equation."

Obama may not have explicitly supported a "time out" but he has come up with his own proposal, a "Patriot Employers Act" that, according to the Financial Times, would "lower the corporate tax rate for companies that met criteria including maintaining their headquarters in the U.S., maintaining or increasing their U.S. workforce relative to their overseas workforce, holding a neutral position in union drives among their employees and providing decent healthcare."

"They both seem to want to tweak the tax code so as to not favor offshoring," said Bernstein, "and the kinds of international machinations you can engage in to escape taxes."

Bernstein also believes that it is unfair to associate Hillary Clinton with her husband's efforts to pass NAFTA -- "she's her own person," he says. But there's little question that her husband's well-known advocacy for NAFTA is the weak point in Hillary Clinton's globalization armor, and Obama hasn't been shy in hammering on it. When you base your campaign on your 35 years of experience, and for eight of those years you were first lady in an administration that, rightly or wrongly, helped significantly advance the current era of globalization, you have to do some nimble maneuvering to carve out your own independent policy space.

Which is not to say that Obama's sharp turn to the left in Ohio hasn't resulted in his own public relations problems. One factor that may partially explain why independents and some Republicans have been leaning toward Obama is the perception that on economic issues Obama does not fit neatly into the typical liberal Democrat box. Indeed, some conservative and libertarian Obama supporters who had previously taken heart at the free-market credentials of Obama's economic advisors are now professing themselves appalled at initiatives such as the Patriot Employers Act.

Barack Obama is probably not sweating the fall-off in his support among libertarians as much as Hillary Clinton is desperate to dissociate herself from the family NAFTA legacy. But maybe he should be. Reviewing his anti-globalization rhetoric in Ohio, one is compelled to note that here, more than at any other point in the campaign to date, Barack Obama is acting like a traditional politician -- with his eyes fixed on next Tuesday's prize, he's crafting his message for maximum political gain, to the point of pandering to voters. Could it come back to haunt him in the future, when, say, a John McCain might try to undermine Obama's mantra of "change" by pointing to his Ohio economics as the same old same old?

Or are the stakes simply too great to do anything else, for either Obama or Clinton? There doesn't seem to be any advantage in a nuanced take on globalization in Ohio in 2008. Because the struggle for the all-important swing state of Ohio will not end on March 4. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be spending plenty more time touring the Midwest and bashing NAFTA, between now and November.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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