No one likes being lied to by politicians, and not just because being lied to is insulting, but because when a lie comes from a politician, it suggests that none of their promises should be believed. As my new nationally syndicated newspaper column shows, this is precisely what is going on in the presidential race when it comes to trade and globalization policy - key policies as the race heads into the working-class bastions of Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
It would be one thing if Hillary Clinton was admitting that yes, she vigorously supported NAFTA, but that support was misguided. But no, as the column shows, Clinton is now trying to convince voters she never supported the North American Free Trade Agreement - the trade model whose lack of labor, human rights and environmental standards made it a tool for Big Business to ship jobs abroad. Not only is she claiming to be a longtime opponent of the deal, but she's actually trotting out former Clinton administration officials-turned-corporate-lawyers like Mickey Kantor - the very architects of the deal - to tell us that behind closed doors she really wasn't for NAFTA. Shocker - these are the same hacks who have lashed their careers to Clinton's campaign in hopes of getting back their White House jobs.
The strategy assumes that the media will simply report this revisionist history as fact, and worse, that Americans who have been crushed by this unfair trade policy are a bunch of idiots. We are simply supposed to ignore the speeches she made telling us what a great success NAFTA was, including the one where she traveled to Davos, Switzerland to give a speech in which she thanked corporate interests for mounting "a very effective business effort in the U.S. on behalf of NAFTA" (that's a direct quote from her mouth). And the lying is about the best indicator that all her rhetoric promising a new trade policy under a Hillary Clinton presidency would be tossed out the window when she got to the White House - much like Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign promises to oppose NAFTA and China PNTR were tossed out the window when he was inaugurated president.
But now, Barack Obama is picking up where John Edwards left off and is reminding folks of the real history, promising to get serious on trade, and consequently the polls in Ohio appear to be closing. Though Obama is certainly not as aggressive on the issue as some of us would like, the rhetoric is encouraging in that he sees his political opportunity in standing with progressives. That means if he manages to win on this message, he will have begun the process of building a real public mandate to reform our broken trade policy - a mandate that he will be under enormous pressure to respect and fulfill as president.
More broadly, no matter which candidate you may be for, the dynamic is positive for anyone wanting to see a serious reform of our trade policies. As the column shows, Republican and Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose our current trade policies, and the old neoliberal triangulation of the Clinton machine - the one that ran "over the dead bodies" of workers when it came to trade policy - is finally being exorcised from the Democratic Party. That will ultimately bring us closer to the fair trade policy our country desperately need.
For the tiny minority of Americans that polls show still drink the "free" trade Kool-Aide, remember that what we have is not "free" trade. We have rigged trade. Our trade deals are chock full of restrictive patent, intellectual property and copyright provisions that protect corporate profits - and often hurt regular people (for one example, see how our rigged trade policy is being used by drug companies to inflate medicine prices in the developing world). Our trade deals are "free" only of similar protections for ordinary people and the environment.
Also remember that the American economy - and all industrialized economies that we tout - grew into a powerhouses not through the kind of trade policies we have today, but with various forms of protections. Far from creating an economic crisis as free market fundamentalists claim, tariffs protecting workers from having to compete with slave labor, protecting the environment, protecting fledgling industries ("social tariffs" as Ross Perot called them) help prevent a destructive race to the bottom. Sure, tariffs can be bad when inappropriately applied - but the idea that "protectionism" and "tariffs" are all bad is absurd, based on a simple reading of basic American economic history.
The wild card in the unfolding debate over trade will be the elite Washington media, which I show has been overtly hostile to anyone presenting a fair trade argument. But as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) told The Nation magazine last week, Democrats should ignore the Beltway elitism both for obvious substantive and less-well-reported political reasons. Brown, who this week introduced common sense fair trade legislation, is living proof of the political benefits of a fair trade message: He crushed a Republican incumbent almost exclusively on such a message in Ohio's 2006 Senate race, meaning the message is not just a good primary theme, but also a terrific general election weapon against NAFTA cheerleader John McCain.
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