The trade follies of Austan Goolsbee and Mark Penn

First there was Obama's "NAFTA-gate." Now comes Clinton's chief campaign strategist, lobbying for a free trade agreement. Which is worse?

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 4, 2008 6:11PM (EDT)

Let us compare the trade antics of Austan Goolsbee and Mark Penn:

Goolsbee, chief economic advisor to Barack Obama, talks with some Canadian officials, and, depending on which side of the conversation you believe, either tries to provide a nuanced view of Obama's position on trade, or encourages the Canadians to ignore the candidate's anti-NAFTA posturing as "rhetoric."

Mark Penn, the chief campaign strategist for Hillary Clinton, in his day job as CEO of the public relations and lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller, turns out to be under contract to Colombia to promote U.S. congressional passage of a free trade agreement with the South American nation. According to the Wall Street Journal, Penn met with Colombia's ambassador to the U.S. on Monday to discuss the deal. So even as he was presumably advising the Clinton campaign to sharpen its anti-trade message to win votes in Ohio, he was simultaneously stuffing himself at the pro-trade buffet.

Penn's behavior is utterly appropriate, from the standpoint of a public relations profession. Like criminal defense lawyers, public relations executives are there do a job, irrespective of their personal feelings. No one cares whether Penn himself is pro- or anti-trade -- Burson-Marsteller is in the business to make (a lot of) bucks.

But from the standpoint of Hillary Clinton, Penn's behavior might look a little different. Personally, if I had already paid Penn $10 million for his services, I'd be miffed at his Colombia FTA moonlighting -- that doesn't seem like good value for money spent.

Austan Goolsbee, in contrast, like most economists, is fundamentally pro-trade -- though, like Obama, he has expressed concern that free trade agreements tend to be written specifically for the benefit of special interests, and do not take into account the priorities of the inevitable losers from trade. (Some economists also oppose bilateral free trade agreements because they feel their passage hurts the chances of global trade pacts.) So when Goolsbee was explaining to Canadian officials what he believed to be Obama's "real" position, he was probably sincere, if politically naive.

Sincerity is not a quality often associated with Mark Penn.

But maybe we shouldn't care what either advisor really thinks. The whole debate over trade is largely symbolic, and particularly so with respect to the Colombian FTA. Signing a free trade agreement with Colombia isn't likely to have either a significant positive or negative affect on the American economy. (The same argument can even be made for NAFTA's long-term influence.) Passage of the FTA will be advantageous to some special interests, but on a bread-and-butter scale, it is highly improbable that the citizens of Pennsylvania, for example, will see their standard of living materially affected. Clinton and Obama's promise not to ratify the deal is just a political stance meant to assure anxious voters in a hurting economy whose interests they hold most dear. But deep down, neither candidate is anything close to a rabid protectionist.

And on the symbolic level, from a pure campaign realpolitik perspective, the news about Penn seems to me more damaging than the news about Obama. Goolsbee made a mistake in being frank in a politically charged atmosphere, and it was undoubtedly very embarrassing to Obama, who had been pushing his anti-NAFTA rhetoric far further than anything his previous record could support. But Goolsbee is a political amateur. Mark Penn is at the heart of Clinton's campaign -- he should have known better than to be so personally involved in a lobbying effort that directly contradicts the "message" that the campaign is supposedly conveying. The fact that he is Clinton's chief campaign strategist sends the very strong signal that there is no there there, in that message.

Andrew Leonard

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

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