The Sin of Speaking Truth

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

YET ANOTHER Democratic adviser is in trouble for having more common sense that his candidate -- or at least, more than his candidate has the courage to admit having.

First there was Austan Goolsbee, Sen. Barack Obama's economic adviser, who suggested to Canadian officials that a President Obama probably wouldn't be foolish enough to repudiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. As Mr. Obama had been running hard against NAFTA, blaming it for a million lost jobs and ignoring the good it has done for the poorer people of Mexico, Mr. Goolsbee's comments had to be repudiated.

Then Mr. Obama's foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power, was forced to resign. Her immediate sin was to call Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton a "monster," which was undeniably indefensible. But what caused Mr. Obama more trouble in subsequent days was a contemporaneous comment Ms. Power had made to the BBC suggesting that, once elected, Mr. Obama might not be so reckless as to order an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq but rather would consider the situation and listen to advice from the military. Mr. Obama did not entirely repudiate this truism; but Ms. Clinton pounced. Ms. Power's comments proved Mr. Obama's promises to be "just words," the Clinton campaign said. "And if you can't trust Senator Obama's words, what's left?" Since Mr. Obama had repeatedly attacked Ms. Clinton as not setting rigid enough withdrawal timetables, her attack was understandable.

Now Ms. Clinton has her own difficulty: One of her top aides, Mark J. Penn, was helping Colombia's government win congressional approval of a U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement that Ms. Clinton opposes. Mr. Penn was charging Colombia for his advice, and a candidate is entitled to ask that her advisers not accept clients with opposing views. But, of course, the real danger was that Democratic primary voters and unions might question Ms. Clinton's primary-season conversion to anti-trade fervor.

This is a particular danger in the case of Colombia, since the arguments against the pact are so flimsy. Colombian exports already have access to the U.S. market, so this agreement would help U.S. exporters without harming domestic industry; and Colombia, with backing from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, has demonstrated remarkable success in quelling civil conflict and restoring order and human rights. Both Democratic candidates rest their opposition on supposed concern about assassination of trade unionists in Colombia, although such violence has fallen so much that the crime rate for them now is lower -- as we've pointed out in past editorials -- than for the population at large. Mr. Obama committed a particularly egregious libel last week when he said, referring to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who has taken on the violent left and the violent right at considerable risk to himself, "You've got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition."

Does Mr. Obama really believe that? Does Ms. Clinton really believe a newly elected president should adhere to a year-old timetable for troop withdrawal, regardless of circumstances? Are they each unaware of the real statistics on NAFTA's effects? Voters are left to wonder, and to ponder which would be worse: that the candidates are sincere and misguided or are insincere and lacking the courage to speak honestly.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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