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Obama, Canada, NAFTA and Some 'Straight Talk'

Did Barack Obama's campaign quietly contact Canadian officials to tell them not to take seriously the Illinois senator's tough talk about renegotiating trade agreements?

CTV, the well-regarded Canadian news network, reported this week that a top Obama adviser contacted the Canadian government to calm fears that the senator was serious about rewriting pro-corporate deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement to benefit workers, farmers and the environment. According to CTV, the Obama adviser told the Canadians that "when Senator Obama talks about opting out of the free trade deal, the Canadian government shouldn't worry. The operative said it was just campaign rhetoric not to be taken seriously."

After that report aired on Wednesday, an Obama campaign spokesperson claimed in an interview with CTV that "no message was passed to the Canadian government that suggests that Obama does not mean what he says about opting out of NAFTA if it is not renegotiated."

The problem, of course, is that CTV has a very credible source -- a a high-ranking member of the Canadian embassy -- who has provided the network with details of the call and a timeline.

Of course, the source is now being pressured to tell a different story by superiors. But few serious observers of the trade debate -- with its history of back channel communications -- doubts the scenario as it was first reported.

Attempts by CTV to get the Obama camp to respond to specific questions about the conversation and the timeline in question have so far proven unsuccessful.

According to CTV, "the Obama camp did not respond to repeated questions from CTV on reports that a conversation on this matter was held between Obama's senior economic adviser -- Austan Goolsbee -- and the Canadian Consulate General in Chicago."

CTV did contact Goolsbee, but he's not cooperating.

The network reports that "(Goolsbee refused to say whether he had such a conversation with the Canadian government office in Chicago. He also said he has been told to direct any questions to the campaign headquarters."

It is starting to sound an awfully lot like the Obama campaign may have gotten caught telling Canada one thing and Ohio something different.

What's the bottom line on this story? According to the network: "Sources at the highest levels of the Canadian government -- who first told CTV that a call was made from the Obama camp -- have reconfirmed their position."

And what's John McCain saying?

"I don't think it's appropriate to go to Ohio and tell people one thing while your aide is calling the Canadian ambassador and telling him something else," says the likely Republican nominee. "I certainly don't think that's straight talk."

On this point, McCain's right.

Buckley Blather

I won't attempt a grand summary of the late William F. Buckley's legacy. The man was undeniably one of the great political forces of the 20th century--so too were Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. But in seeking to capture the scope of his influence, writers on the left have taken to applauding Buckley's "brilliance."

My colleague John Nichols, for example, recently described Buckley as "intellectually bold and ideologically adventurous," and applauded his "political playfulness." John was writing about Buckley in the '60s, when he campaigned for mayor of New York City. But Buckley's so-called boldness and playfulness had an ideological flip-side: cruelty, pettiness and a tendency to embrace fascistic solutions in the guise of pragmatism.

Case in point, and as pointed out on Digby's blog, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Buckley suggested that "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals."

Apparently, Buckley renounced this opinion after he discovered that his friend, McCarthy-ite and closeted homosexual Roy Cohn was dying of AIDS. But in 2005, Buckley relapsed. In a transparently homophobic article about a 26-year old, HIV-positive, drug-addicted sex fiend named "Tony Venenum" (I suppose in Bucklian parlance the pseudonym "Venenum" passes for wit), Buckley wrote:

"Someone, 20 years ago, suggested a discreet tattoo the site of which would alert the prospective partner to the danger of proceeding as had been planned. But the author of the idea was treated as though he had been schooled in Buchenwald, and the idea was not widely considered, but maybe it is up now for reconsideration."

Buckley was writing in the wake of sensationalistic articles in the New York Times about a so-called "superbug" version of HIV. The story, as David France documented in New York magazine, proved more fantasy than science. But it sure did inflame the homophobic imagination. But this time around, Buckley had strange bedfellows: the gay historian Charlie Kaiser, whose suggestion that passing HIV to someone was akin to putting "a bullet through another person's head" Buckley quoted approvingly, and Larry Kramer--whose Cassandra-complex reached full flight in his rant The Tragedy of Today's Gays (see my review in Salon).

In the final analysis, Buckley thought that unprotected sex was the same as "committing murder" and that "murderers need to be stopped." Now, someone tell me how such Neanderthal views on public health pass for brilliance or wit? Is anyone laughing? Maybe Norman Mailer said it best when he called Buckley a "second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row."

Beef Inside SEIU

Steven Greenhouse at the Times as the run-down on the latest intramural battles inside the Service Employees International Union.

This tussle started back in early February when Sal Rosselli, president of a large local in CA, resigned from SEIU's CA executive council and posted a blistering open letter [PDF] faulting the union for pursuing growth uber alles and neglecting their members. But it's part of a much longer debate about the relative merits of (to over simplify) increasing union density through aggressive growth, even when that growth comes as a result of a grab bags of tactical approaches that can border on vanguardist, and focusing instead on union democracy, making sure unions are accountable to their members. Again, that's an oversimplification, but the fact is there is some tension between growth and small-d democracy inside a union and this tensions was in many respects part of the subtext for the split between the AFL-CIO and CTW a few years back.

Friday Capitol Letter

In the House....After last week's indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), the House continued its skittish debate over the creation of an independent ethics office. Democrats yanked a slated vote on the proposal as the GOP offered a competing plan to expand the existing ethics committee; neither proposal would grant subpoena power to a new body. By 212-198 vote, Democrats defeated a GOP attempt to force a vote on Senate-passed FISA legislation that grants telecom companies immunity. On Wednesday, the House voted to eliminate $18 billion in tax subsidies for oil companies and expand renewable energy incentives. That bill, HR5351, faces an uphill Senate fight and White House veto.

In the Senate....The largest $35-billion Indian health care overhaul in over a decade won passage after protracted battle, increasing federal spending by an annual average of $500 million for 10 years. "People are literally dying because we have not acted," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chief sponsor. In what was expected to be a largely symbolic move, two of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)'s Iraq-related measures were unexpectedly seized by the Republicans as an opportunity to debate the success of the "surge," and simultaneously delay consideration of a Democrat-backed housing bill. After three days, the Democrats pulled the two bills without final votes taken. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)'s subsequent attempt to take up the housing bill likewise stalled as Republicans pilloried its proposal to allow bankruptcy judges' modification of mortgage terms for principal residences; the White House threatened to veto the bill.

Also this week, under threat of subpoena, former Attorney General John Ashcroft agreed to testify before the House about the no-bid, 18-month consulting contract worth up to $52 million his company was awarded to oversee a DOJ settlement. In a packed Cambridge public hearing, the FCC weighed whether to discourage cable giants like Comcast from discriminating against particular web sites or types of traffic. Both the House and Senate voted to extend the Andean trade promotion program for 10 months. Meanwhile over the weekend, state governors entreated Congress to end new Medicaid regulations that would shift billions onto already struggling state budgets (fully 21 states face budget shortfalls in 2009).

On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a bill to reauthorize Bush's global AIDS program, boosting Bush's original $30 billion funding request to $50 billion and eliminating the requirement that one-third of funding promote abstinence education. The White House reacted less than enthusiastically: "We don't think it's smart to send additional American taxpayer dollars that will sit there and not be used, or used ineffectively," said Dana Perino.

And as the Republican Study Committee urged more business tax cuts, at a Thursday press conference, President Bush exhorted Congress to make his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. The President also rebuffed the notion that the U.S. was experiencing a recession: ''We'll make it through this period just like we made it through other periods of uncertainty during my presidency,'' he said.

Free Onsaloo

It's a truism that if there's one thing that repressive regimes, from Zimbabwe to China, hate, it's independent trade unions.

Not surprising, then, that Iran has been imprisoning and detaining trade unionists for years. Mansour Osanloo is the president of the Tehran transit workers union, and currently sits in an Iranian prison. On March 6th, labor organizations around the world are holding a demanding his release.

The Politics of Place

This Atlantic piece about the ex-urbs as the new slums is scary, but plausible. I understand politicians don't necessarily want to be doomsayers, but there's a startling disconnect between the panic and pessimism I encounter on the financial blogs I read and the treatment of same in the campaign.

UPDATE: This is what I mean.

Banging Obama For Making Sense on Trade

Barack Obama has adopted a cautiously critical stance with regard to free-trade agreements such as NAFTA.

The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination is hardly proposing a new direction, let alone "change."

Obama suggests some tinkering around the edges of existing deals, and only when forced to do so under repeated and aggressive questioning allows as how he might pressure Canada and Mexico if they refuse to address the most dramatic flaws in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As such, Obama's stance is that of a moderate, corporate-friendly but rational Republican. Indeed, smart observers of the Illinois senator's tortured attempts to distance himself from official Washington's "Wall Street Uber Alles" song and dance on economic issues suggest quietly that, when all is said and done, those who hope for a genuine shift toward fair-trade policies are likely to be disappointed by Obama.

But that has not stopped free-trade fanatics from attacking the candidate for his answer to a hypothetical posed by NBC's Tim Russert in the Ohio Democratic presidential debate.

After New York Senator Hillary Clinton -- whose name, through association with her husband's presidency, is synonymous with support for free-trade fantasies -- outlined the barely-muscular negotiating stance that might be used to seek adjustments in NAFTA and other trade deals, Russert turned to Obama and asked: "A simple question: Will you as president say to Canada and Mexico, this [NAFTA] has not worked for us, we are out?"

Obama answered: "I will make sure that we renegotiate in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about, and I think actually Senator Clinton's answer on this one is right. I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced."

That was hardly a radical statement. Many Republicans in Congress have made similar, and in some cases far more bombastic, statements.

But the Republican National Committee has spent the past several days attacking Obama for taking the tiniest step outside the boundaries of what is considered "appropriate" commentary regarding trade policies that have done severe harm to the circumstance of workers and communities in the U.S. and its trading partners.

This criticism is being echoed by corporate Democrats such as Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who has consistently used his key position in the House Democratic Caucus to thwart the efforts of labor unions, farm groups, environmental organizations and human rights coalitions to establish trade policies that respect workers, farmers and the environment rather than obediently serving the interests of multinational corporations.

Emanuel, who helped to promote NAFTA as a Clinton White House aide in the 1990s, is joined in his shredding of Obama's stance by media outlets that once predicted the agreement would usher in an era of prosperity for American industry and its domestic workforce.

Being wrong about trade still means never having to say you're sorry.

But, more importantly, those who have been wrong defend their "credibility" by attacking those who dare notice that the emperor has no clothes.

"Democrats sure have come a long way from the 1990s, when Bill Clinton pushed Nafta through a Democratic Congress," growls the Wall Street Journal. "[T]hey are sounding the loudest protectionist notes by a potential President in decades. More dangerous, neither (Obama or Clinton) is telling the truth about the role of trade in the U.S. economy. If either one makes it to the White House, he or she will carry the weight of this campaign protectionism while trying to lead the global economy."

"Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continued their wild swings at the 1993 deal at their latest debate in Cleveland, portraying NAFTA as harmful to U.S. workers and the economy," whines the Orlando Sentinel. "Trade boosts economic growth by allowing countries to shift resources to more competitive industries. It opens new markets for companies, farmers and investors. It provides consumers more affordable choices. ... Instead of trying to turn back the clock on trade, the next president needs to pursue strategies to adapt better to the global economy."

In fact, renegotiating dated trade agreements does precisely that--if the renegotiation is aimed at getting a fairer deal for workers, farmers and consumers in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, the Republican National Committee, Rahm Emanuel and their media echo chamber don't want the U.S. to adapt better to the global economy. Rather, they want to maintain trade policies that benefit only the multinational corporations that fund campaigns and own media in a country with an economy that is wobbling under the weight of the largest trade deficit in the history of the planet.

Ron Paul Has a Rival

In the run-up to this Tuesday's Texas primary, Congressman Ron Paul is facing a challenge from one Chris Peden, the personable Republican mayor pro tem of Friendswood, who says the 20-year Congressman is out there "to make a point, not a difference." (Out of 351 pieces of legislation Paul has sponsored, notes Peden, only six have made it out of committee, and none has ever passed.)

Wonkette braves the wrath of the Paulhards to take its satire to Texas:

To most American political fanatics, Ron Paul is just a goofy hobbit whose hilariously doomed online presidential campaign provided standout entertainment in a year that offered a wealth of hilariously doomed campaigns.

But to many of his constituents in Texas Congressional District 14, Ron Paul is just a blame-America-first attention whore who completely ignores the people who put him in office...

No independent polls have been released; both candidates claim the advantage in the March 4th primary. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Feb. 13, Paul had $279,256 cash on hand; Peden had less than half that amount.

Samantha Power: Obama and Me

Samantha Power is Barack Obama's senior foreign policy adviser, but when his office first called her in 2005, she thought, "who is this guy?"

Her 2003 book on genocide, "A Problem from Hell," won a Pulitzer Prize, and she's a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard. In a recent interview I asked her why Obama called her. "His office said he had just read my book, and he wanted to talk about, literally, 'a smart, tough, and humane foreign policy.' No one from the US government had every called me - no mayor, no school board head."

And why didn't she know who he was? "I had been out of the country, in Sudan, at the time of Barack Obama's national coming out, which was the Democratic National Convention of 2004." When she asked around, she heard he was a great speaker. "So I went onto iTunes and downloaded his speech and got on the shuttle down to Washington and listened to the speech on the plane. And I had a cry. I couldn't believe the speech, couldn't believe the country he was telling me I lived in.

"And then I went and met with him. We were supposed to meet for an hour. One hour gave way to two, then three. Entering the fourth hour, I heard myself saying, 'why don't I quit my job at Harvard and come and intern in your office and answer the phones or do whatever you want?' It was literally that spontaneous."

Had she been thinking about a job in Washington? "No," she replied. "I had never had any aspiration to go anywhere near government."

What was it about that three-hour conversation that changed her mind? "It was the rigor of the interrogation that I was subjected to," she said. "He really pushed me. Barack is incredibly empirical and non-ideological. He's very aware of the tectonic plate shifts in the global order - the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia, the loss of influence by the US -- and how those affect your ability to get what you want, on anything from global warming to getting out of Iraq to stopping genocide. I thought, if you're interested in helping change the world in your small way, grandiose as that sounds, even if I was just answering his phones, I would have more impact than writing these big books that I put out ever half decade or so."

I pointed out that a lot of people say Clinton and Obama are pretty much the same on foreign policy. She disagreed. The biggest difference, of course, is "not wanting to go into Iraq in the first place." But beyond that, she said, Obama has "a plan to get out of Iraq responsibly. He is willing to make the Iraqi people central to his plan: to think about moving people from mixed neighborhoods to homogenous neighborhoods if that was required; creating a war crimes commission; giving two billion dollars in aid to Iraq's neighbors who are sheltering these refugees."

Cuba presents more differences. Obama, she said, "was the first person to come out and say there has got to be a statue of limitations on a failed policy, and surely five decades is enough to know that this isn't working. So he favors allowing family travel and family remittances as the beginnings of a pathway to normalization.

She pointed to one other difference: "this question of whether we talk to our adversaries without preconditions. Obama said, I'm not afraid of Ahmadinejad. He's a Holocaust denier, he supports Hamas and Hezbollah, he has infiltrated Iraq, he's enriching uranium- and by being in the room talking to him, it's actually being tougher than lobbing these verbal grenades that Bush and Cheney toss from 5,000 miles away. Even if we fail to make progress on any of these issues, we will then have the international wind at our back, and we will have the capacity to mobilize a global response to his regime."

"On all these sacred cows," she concluded, "Obama wants to change the debate, expand the bandwidth" in ways that Clinton does not.

Samantha Power's latest book is a biography of UN diplomat Sergio Vieiro de Mello called "Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World."