As the 2008 campaign shifts to economically hard-hit states like Ohio, so too do the topics of political debate. This week, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has attacked Sen. Hillary Clinton on trade, arguing that she was once a supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement that contributed to the loss hundreds of thousands of American jobs.
"A little more than a year ago," an Obama mailer reads, "Hillary Clinton thought NAFTA was a 'boon' to the economy." The piece goes on to argue that the New York Senator is "changing her tune" now that she's campaigning in the Buckeye State.
The attack is, most observers say, misleading. The "boon" line, a paraphrase lifted from a September 2006 Newsday article, has yet to be confirmed as an authentic quote. But, more importantly, the mailer misrepresents what former Clinton administration officials and biographers say was Hillary Clinton's long-held opposition to the legislation.
"In August in 92, we had to make a decision," Mickey Kantor the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Clinton adviser, and free trade advocate recalled for the Huffington Post. "President Clinton had to make a decision as governor, whether or not he would support [George H.W. Bush's] NAFTA, and of course he did... Hillary Clinton was one of the great skeptics in the discussion as to whether he should do. So she was always skeptical beginning in 1992 and onward."
Indeed, as Kantor went on to note, Hillary Clinton long held reservations over the labor and environmental fallouts of the free trade agreement. In addition, she was, at the time, eager to see her health care reform (not NAFTA) pushed through Congress. As such, Clinton biographer Sally Bedell Smith writes in her book "For Love of Politics," her disapproval of the trade agreement was both political and philosophical.
The economic team and other key advisors, including Mack McLarty, Mickey Kantor, and David Gergen, were likewise urging Bill to use his momentum to push or congressional ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)...Liberal Democrats, including Hillary, opposed it primarily because it could take jobs away from American workers. But as an advocate of global economic cooperation, Bill was drawn to its free-trade philosophy.
It fell to Mickey Kantor, the U.S. Trade Representative responsible for implementing NAFTA, to reason with Hillary. One day in August, he sat her down on a bench behind the White House and tried to strike a compromise. "I said, 'If you want to drop NAFTA, we can kill it, but we shouldn't,'" Kantor recalled. "I said, 'The way to do it is to introduce health care, spend a month on it, and then do NAFTA, then go back to health care.'" With misgivings, Hillary acquiesced to the proposed sequence.
Carl Bernstein, another Clinton biographer, echoed much the same tale during a recent appearance on CNN.
"'Bill,'" he recalled Hillary Clinton as saying, "'you are doing Republican economics when you are doing NAFTA.' She was against NAFTA. And if she would somehow come out and tell the real story of what she fought for in the White House and failed in a big argument with her husband she would end up moving much closer to those [John] Edwards followers."
So why didn't we hear such protests from Hillary Clinton during her husband's administration?
"The whole time that she was first lady," said Robert Shapiro, the undersecretary of commerce during the Clinton White House years, "she, like everybody else...[was] not supposed to deviate from the position of the administration. There is no freedom of speech in there, and that certainly applies to a first lady."
On the 2008 campaign trail, Clinton has been free of those shackles. And, on many occasions, she has expressed misgivings about NAFTA, although usually she qualifies her statements by saying she supports the underlying idea.
"I believe in the general principles it represented," she said last February, noting that she voted against CAFTA [the Central American Free Trade Agreement] because of a lack of environmental and labor standards. "But what we have learned is that we have to drive a tougher bargain. Our market is the market that everybody wants to be in. We should quit giving it away so willy-nilly. I believe we need tougher enforcement of the trade agreements we already have."
Clinton ``is committed to free trade and to the growing role of the international economy,'' Steven Rattner, a Clinton fundraiser and co-founder of Quadrangle Group LLC, a New York buyout firm told Bloomberg.com. ``She would absolutely do the right thing as president.''
More recently, at the Las Vegas Democratic Debate on November 15, 2007, she offered the following, more concise declaration: "NAFTA was a mistake to the extent that it did not deliver on what we had hoped it would."
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