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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Concerning “NAFTA-Gate”

If Hillary Clinton wins big in Ohio today–where Barack Obama seemed to be headed towards an upset win just a week ago–you can bet the punditocracy will attribute the turnaround to “NAFTA-Gate” (yes, friends, a full generation after the Watergate break-in, American political reporters still attach the suffix “gate” to every imaginable political controversy, big or little).
In case you somehow missed the saga (hard to imagine, since it’s received saturation treatment from the MSM over the last few days), “NAFTA-Gate” refers to an incident wherein Obama economic advisor Austan Goolsbee (by all accounts a brilliant and non-Machiavellian gent) attended a private meeting with lower-level Canadian conciliar staff in Chicago, after which said staff prepared a memo suggesting that Goolsbee told them that Obama’s sharp rhetoric about NAFTA was merely “political positioning.” The memo was subsequently leaked to the Associated Press under suspicious circumstances, possibly by the office of conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
There are a lot of reasons this incident, which might have been considered a nothing-burger at a different time and place, drew so much attention, beyond the efforts of the Clinton campaign. Most obviously, it occurred on the eve of a crucial primary in Ohio, which is arguably ground zero for the anti-free-trade sentiment that has gradually become dominant in the Democratic Party over the last decade. Being considered soft on NAFTA in Ohio is a bit like being perceived as hostile to ethanol or caucuses in Iowa.
Moreover, “NAFTA-Gate” was immediately inflated by something of a perfect storm of highly divergent media interests: political beat reporters eager to rebut allegations that they had given Obama a free ride; centrist editorial writers alarmed by both candidates’ anti-NAFTA rhetoric; Republican operatives and conservative noise machinists happy for the chance to take Obama down a notch; and then the Lou Dobbs types always ready to pounce upon “evidence” that politicians say one thing about trade to the folks and then sell them down the river behind close doors, on the advice of people like Austan Goolsbee.
It’s richly ironic that the politician benefitting from “NAFTA-gate” is the wife of the man most often accused by his Democratic critics of feeling the pain of trade-affected workers while promoting contrary policies, Bill Clinton, who signed NAFTA and then pushed it through a closely divided Congress.
But still, the Obama campaign undoubtedly set itself up for this bad press by going after HRC on NAFTA. And it gave the story a long shelf-life by initally denying any back-channel Obama-Canada discussions, and then, once Goolsbee’s name surfaced, trying to claim he was just some academic economist speaking for himself.
Largely lost in the controversy is what Goolsbee actually said to the Canadians. The undisputed part of the story is that he encouraged Canadians to understand Obama’s remarks on NAFTA within the broader context of his overall views on trade and globalization, which have been consistently positive. And if you are looking for any deep meaning in the whole kerfuffle, it’s that Barack Obama is himself a symbol of globalization. It’s no accident that so much of the world has become fascinated with his candidacy and what it might mean for an America often viewed as simultaneously isolationist and militarist.
Beyond its affect on Ohio and the presidential nominating contest, the ultimate effect of “NAFTA-gate” will probably be minor. One friend of mine quipped today that most Americans might learn for the first time that Canada is a signatory to NAFTA. Daniel Drezner has suggested that the Canadians have finally found a way–albeit the worst way–to become relevant to an American presidential campaign.
Best I can tell, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, much like Democrats generally, think and live in that shadowy borderland that divides “yes, but” and “no, but” attitudes towards trade agreements with other countries. You don’t have to consider them hypocrites or scoundrels for leaning towards “no, but” arguments while campaigning in Ohio, and then leaning towards “yes, but” positions if actually elected president and put in charge of this country’s international economic policies. You can’t take the politics out of politics, and in terms of everyone’s reaction to this strangely overwrought incident, that may be the residual lesson of “NAFTA-Gate.”
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist
I would add to Matt’s analysis, however, one proviso: Kerry, who had one of the most consistent pro-trade voting records of any Senator from either party, never promised to renegotiate past or suspend future trade agreements. His big concession to anti-NAFTA Democrats was to promise a comprehensive review of all existing trade agreements to see if they were serving their original purpose. Much of his rhetoric about “Benedict Arnold CEO’s” had to do with tax subsidies for offshoring rather than trade policy.
But I agree with Matt’s basic point that the tension between Democratic rhetoric and Democratic policy on trade didn’t start with Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Indeed, lest we forget, Al Gore was the man who vanquished Ross Perot in the famous debate over NAFTA in 1993. By 2000, his campaign had adopted the official position of the NAFTA-hating AFL-CIO, that labor and environmental standards had to be included in the “core” of any bilateral or regional trade agreement, a condition squarely violated by NAFTA, and contrary to the trade policies of a Clinton administration in which Gore had been a major figure.

One comment on “Concerning “NAFTA-Gate”

  1. links on

    Blame it on Canada! Seriously, McCain is set-up nicely now to win Ohio in the general if Obama is the nominee, if only he stops telling people in the rust belt that their jobs aren’t coming back.


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