This news report from Canadian Television is pretty disturbing:
"Barack Obama has ratcheted up his attacks on NAFTA, but a senior member of his campaign team told a Canadian official not to take his criticisms seriously, CTV News has learned...Within the last month, a top staff member for Obama's campaign telephoned Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the United States, and warned him that Obama would speak out against NAFTA, according to Canadian sources. The staff member reassured Wilson that the criticisms would only be campaign rhetoric, and should not be taken at face value."
It's hard to see any problem with Obama's campaign making contact with the Canadian embassy. But there is a huge problem if a top staff person for Obama's campaign really did "reassure [the embassy] that the criticisms would only be campaign rhetoric, and should not be taken at face value."
Right now, Hillary Clinton is trying to pretend she never supported NAFTA, when the historical record clearly shows she did. Obama's past record is much more clear -- he has always said he opposed the NAFTA trade model, even drawing criticism for that position from his hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune.
But this CTV report is troubling, in that it implies he's deliberately trying to fool voters on this issue. We'll see if Obama's campaign issues a statement telling us what happened. Again, I see no problem with Obama's campaign contacting the Canadian embassy and giving them a heads up about his campaign message. The real issue would be if the campaign officially told the Canadians that the candidate's campaign promises on NAFTA are lies.
UPDATED: I've updated the headline here, because Obama's campaign has just issued a forceful statement in response to the CTV story. Here it is:
"The news reports on Obama's position on NAFTA are inaccurate and in no way represent Senator Obama's consistent position on trade. When Senator Obama says that he will forcefully act to make NAFTA a better deal for American workers, he means it. Both Canada and Mexico should know that, as president, Barack Obama will do what it takes to create and protect American jobs and strengthen the American economy -- that includes amending NAFTA to include labor and environmental standards. We are currently reaching out to the Canadian embassy to correct this inaccuracy," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
On balance, I'm strongly inclined to believe the Obama camp on this one. He's a guy who has said he's been against NAFTA since he was a candidate for the Senate, and has taken heat for it. The Canadian officials quoted are conservative, pro-NAFTA politicians with an interest in tamping down the push to reform our trade policies. And the article itself is very thinly sourced. My guess is Obama's campaign at some point contacted the Canadian embassy as a courtesy, and that was spun into this story - without direct quotes, of course - claiming his rhetoric would not be followed through on.
Bottom line, however - this story, though likely inaccurate, highlights the need for us all to keep the pressure on both candidates, and ultimately, on the new Democratic administration and Congress in 2009. If we want to reform trade policy, we're going to have to really hold all politicians' feet to the fire.
UPDATE II: From the Politico's Ben Smith - a repudiation of the story now from the Canadian embassy:
A spokesman for the Canadian Embassy to the United States, Tristan Landry, flatly denied the CTV report that a senior Obama aide had told the Canadian ambassador not to take seriously Obama's denunciations of Nafta.
"None of the presidential campaigns have called either the Ambassador or any of the officials here to raise Nafta," Landry said.
He said there had been no conversations at all on the subject.
"We didn't make any calls, they didn't call us," Landry said.
"There is no story as far as we're concerned," he said.