Barack Obama may have introduced America to the audacity of hope. But in the Democratic primary debate on the pivotal issue of trade policy, it is the audacity of Hillary Clinton that is remarkable. Obama has been troublingly tentative when it comes to articulating the smart progressive response to the challenges of globalization that the voters in the nation’s industrial heartland await. Clinton has shown no such caution. As she did before Ohio’s March 4 primary, where blue-collar votes renewed her candidacy, the New York senator is campaigning in the next big-primary states as a fierce critic of failed trade deals. Incredibly, for a woman who has been caught inflating her populist credentials more than once this year, Clinton is moving way beyond the vague rhetoric about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement that became a centerpiece of her Ohio campaigning. Borrowing pages from Ralph Nader, she’s telling Pennsylvania and Indiana voters that America’s national security is threatened by trade and investment policies that make the stability of the US economy “dependent upon decisions made in other countries’ capitals.” Clinton warns that the US trade deficit with China–which rose last year to a record $252 billion–has given Beijing too much financial leverage over us. And she’s linking her “slow erosion of our own economic sovereignty” theme with a claim that she has opposed the free-trade regime since 1992–implicitly suggesting that workers who have been let down by other Democrats can count on her to battle Wall Street on behalf of Main Street.
Clinton’s latest line rewrites her history. Shortly before her campaign began airing NAFTA-bashing television ads in Pennsylvania, the National Archives released 11,046 pages of previously classified documents of her tenure as First Lady. The smoking gun buried within contradicts Clinton’s claim that “I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning.” The papers confirm that Clinton worked against labor, farm and environmental groups in 1993 to pass NAFTA–and in so doing initiated a new era in trade relations that would see the United States help form the World Trade Organization, pressure Africa and Latin America to open themselves to new forms of economic colonialism and remove restrictions on trade with China. Clinton participated in strategy sessions and headlined a closed-door rally that prepared 120 women business leaders to lobby Congress. Clinton aides claim she was secretly pushing back against the free-trade orthodoxy of her husband’s administration, but those who heard her at the rally say that’s “ludicrous.”
“There was no question that everyone who spoke, including the First Lady, was for NAFTA,” says Laura Jones, executive director of the US Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel. This is not the only inconvenient trade truth for Clinton. After she capitalized in Ohio on reports that an Obama aide told Canadians not to take seriously the Illinois senator’s criticisms of NAFTA, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff was quoted in Canadian media saying that Canadians got similar assurances from the Clinton camp.
After so many stumbles, why is Clinton opening a discussion about the trade deficit with China, which ballooned after her husband’s administration “normalized” trade relations with that country in 2000–a move Hillary Clinton openly supported, despite warnings that it would speed the exodus of US jobs and undermine the ability of Washington to pressure Beijing on human rights? It’s a sly calculation. To win delegates from states like Pennsylvania and Indiana–which according to the Economic Policy Institute have lost, respectively, 78,200 and 45,200 jobs because of the US-China trade imbalance–Clinton must establish herself as a credible critic of free trade. And she is betting that reporters who rarely cover trade issues seriously won’t press her on her past positions.
For the most part, Obama has let her get away with it. The Obama camp has criticized Clinton a bit for gaming the trade debate, but its critique has been unfocused. And it has not connected with blocs of white working-class voters in an arc of states worried about trade–Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky–that hold primaries in April and May. In fairness, Obama has been preoccupied with discussions of race forced to the forefront by media absorption with his former pastor’s sermons. But there is, as well, a sense that his caution may have something to do with his ambivalence about siding too closely with labor, farm, environmental and human rights groups in the trade debate. Like Clinton, Obama backed the recent Peru Free Trade Agreement, and his “movement” on globalization issues has seemed to be influenced more by presidential ambition than the commitment to workers here and abroad that motivates fair-trade crusaders like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Maine Congressman Mike Michaud–neither of whom has endorsed anyone in the presidential race. Skepticism about both Obama and Clinton has so far prevented two key unions, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers, from providing either Democratic contender with an endorsement that could influence industrial-state primaries.
The trade debate is a challenge for Obama. For all Clinton’s talk, her record of past support for free trade with China makes her vulnerable in Pennsylvania and Indiana. But to exploit that vulnerability, Obama must be more than a critic of Clinton or even NAFTA. Obama must inspire confidence that he “gets” Sherrod Brown’s point that the problem is not NAFTA; it’s “the NAFTA model” for trade pacts–a point Brown and Michaud plan to make this month with timely legislation that challenges US support of “race to the bottom” trade policies that encourage corporations to move jobs in search of ever lower standards for protecting workers, consumers and the environment. “It’s not just NAFTA. The entire trade regime doesn’t work,” says Steelworkers president Leo Gerard. “We’re waiting to hear more details from the remaining Democratic candidates on what they’re going to do about China, revitalizing American manufacturing and their trade positions before we do any final endorsement.” While Obama practices caution and the unions wait, Clinton is mounting an opportunistic campaign that plays off displaced workers’ desperation for a champion–even one whose credibility is undermined by her record.