Ms. Clinton's Trade Adjustment

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton had to fight many powerful lobbying groups to win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. None was more imposing than that most Democratic of constituencies, organized labor. Mr. Clinton stood up to the unions: He publicly condemned the AFL-CIO for its "roughshod, muscle-bound tactics" against undecided Democratic members of Congress. In the end, he was rewarded for his persistence. Not only did NAFTA pass, but Mr. Clinton won reelection in 1996 -- with the unions' support. Fourteen years after NAFTA was approved, the case for free trade remains the same. Though it imposes costly dislocations on workers in less-competitive industries, it benefits the country as a whole by increasing efficiency. Over time, the result is more jobs and lower prices.

Yet Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) seems to have forgotten her husband's winning formula. Campaigning for president, she has been busily repudiating his legacy on free trade, voting against the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement in the Senate and backing away from NAFTA. In an interview published yesterday by USA Today, she called for a "timeout" on further trade agreements until their impact can be fully studied. Ms. Clinton even suggested that it might be time for NAFTA to be "adjusted." Her reasoning was not terribly clear: This is a candidate, after all, who has voted in favor of free-trade deals with Singapore and Chile. She suggested that perhaps something changed between the end of the 20th century, when "trade was a net positive for America and American workers" and now, when we need to have "a serious conversation about that."

She did not, however, take the opportunity to contribute to such a conversation herself. Instead, her comments amount to little more than a faint "me, too" in response to the trade-bashing of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), a rival of Ms. Clinton in the Iowa caucuses. She now leads him by six percentage points in polling in the state, but he still seems to have her on the defensive on this issue. Recently, Mr. Edwards has tried to link Ms. Clinton to her husband's trade policies, complaining that NAFTA was "written by insiders in all three countries."

Mr. Edwards's anti-trade rhetoric, though dubious economically, may be smart politically, since the Iowa caucuses are disproportionately attended by union members, especially members of the viscerally protectionist United Auto Workers. We suppose Ms. Clinton's remarks represent a perverse kind of good news: There's little chance that her position reflects any deeply held principle. On the other hand, such opportunism under pressure would not serve the country well if she becomes president.

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