Obama and Clinton Freely Trade NAFTA Distortions

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) made a fine show of indignation in Ohio over the weekend, accusing Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) of distorting her positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Both candidates have been trying to convince Ohio voters that they would fight to protect the interests of American workers from trade deals such as NAFTA. But neither Obama nor Clinton is being entirely honest on the NAFTA issue. Both of them have exaggerated their opposition to the 1993 free-trade agreement with Mexico and Canada and have misstated the other's position.


During her news conference in Cincinnati, Clinton cited a mailing from the Obama campaign to Ohio voters that said that she thought NAFTA had been a "boon" to the U.S. economy. By placing the word "boon" in quotation marks, the mailing implied that Clinton had used that expression to describe NAFTA.

This was not the case. The word "boon" appeared in a September 2006 chart published by Newsday summarizing Clinton's views on the economy, but it was the newspaper's characterization, not Clinton's.

Even though Clinton did not use the word "boon," she has spoken positively of NAFTA on several occasions, including in her autobiography, "Living History." Former president Bill Clinton staked considerable political capital in persuading the Senate to ratify NAFTA, and Hillary loyally supported his efforts as first lady. In a March 6, 1996, photo op, reported by the Associated Press, she described NAFTA as "a free and fair trade agreement" and said that it was "proving its worth."

There is some evidence that Clinton was less enthusiastic about NAFTA than her husband. Two of her biographers, Carl Bernstein and Sally Bedell Smith, said that she was wary about pushing NAFTA because of its potential to interfere with her attempts to get her health plan through Congress, a much higher priority for her. According to Bedell Smith, "Hillary was really prepared to try and kill NAFTA."

Hillary Clinton's ambivalence about NAFTA was captured in a Jan. 5, 2004, teleconference, in which she argued for a "rethinking of our trade policies, not to turn our back on trade, but to come up with a more effective 21st-century trade policy." She said that "on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York and America" but that the Bush administration needed to do more to enforce fair trading rules. She said the United States had to be more "upfront" with Canada, which had devised various "rationales" for blocking the import of agricultural products from New York.

Obama took a very similar position while running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. Speaking at an agricultural round table in Bloomington, Ill., on Sept. 8, 2004, he said that Americans "benefit enormously from exports, and so we have an interest in free trade that allows us to move our products overseas." But he also complained that European countries and China had put up unfair barriers to American products.

"If we are to be competitive over the long term, we've got to make sure free trade remains in place, but it's also fair trade for American farmers," he told the panel, according to a transcript provided by the Obama campaign and contemporaneous news reports.

The Clinton campaign has mischaracterized the Obama position in a mailing to Ohio voters. Referring to the same 2004 event in Illinois, the mailing quoted the Associated Press as saying the following: "Obama said the United States should continue to work with the World Trade Organization and pursue deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement."

The Clinton mailing leaves out the second part of the sentence: "but the country must be more aggressive about protecting American interests." Without that follow-up phrase, the essence of Obama's position is distorted. The mailing also used the "benefit enormously" quote but left out Obama's complaints about unfair trading practices.


You would not think so from the way they have been attacking each other, but Clinton and Obama are not all that far apart on NAFTA. They both believe in free trade, but they both contend that the United States has gotten a bad deal from the way NAFTA and other trade deals have been enforced. Both candidates have used quotes selectively to slam each other. Two Pinocchios apiece.

ONE PINOCCHIO: Some shading of the facts. TWO PINOCCHIOS: Significant omissions or exaggerations. THREE PINOCCHIOS: Significant factual errors. FOUR PINOCCHIOS: Real whoppers. THE GEPPETTO CHECK MARK: Statements and claims contain the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

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