If the 2008 Wisconsin Democratic primary contest is remembered for anything it will be as the place where an unfocused debate on economics began to get serious about the issue of global trade.
In a state where there is a general sense that the North American Free Trade Agreement and the extension of permanent most-favored-nation trading status to China have done severe harm to Wisconsin workers, communities and industries, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton realized quickly that they were not going to get away with vague statements about globalization.
Obama began his Wisconsin campaign a week ago with a speech to almost 20,000 people in Madison that featured several references to the need to change this country’s approach to trade deals. And the next morning, at the behest of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who has not endorsed in the presidential race, Obama went to Feingold’s hometown of Janeville to deliver a major address on economic policy at the General Motors plant there.
“(When) I am president, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers,” he told the United Auto Workers union members. “And I’ll pass the Patriot Employer Act that I’ve been fighting for ever since I ran for the Senate–we will end the tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas, and we will give those breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America.”
Not to be outdone, Clinton told workers in DePere — in the paper mill region of the Fox River Valley — that she would institute a “time out” on all new trade agreements and institute a review of existing agreements with an eye toward addressing flaws that have saddled the United States with huge trade deficits. She, too, called for ending all tax incentives for companies that shutter U.S. factories and move jobs overseas.
“We have to take back every single tax break that companies get for exporting jobs out of Wisconsin,” said Clinton, whose husband Bill led the fight for the NAFTA and China trade deals and bent tax policies to satisfy the demands of business interests.
The tough language on trade represented a rhetorical shift for both Obama and Clinton, who before reaching Wisconsin had been far more cautious about breaking with the “new Democrat” mantra that free-trade benefits U.S. workers and consumers.
Many critics of current trade policies, including key unions such as the United Steelworkers, had backed a third candidate, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who emerged as a far stronger critic of free-trade deals and corporate excesses than Obama or Clinton during the early stages of the campaign.
After Edwards left the race, both Obama and Clinton sought the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee’s support, and that of his supporters. In pursuing this backing, they muscled up some of their rhetoric on trade.