Days before a Michigan primary in which trade has emerged as a key presidential campaign issue, Hillary Clinton acknowledged Friday the failings of trade policies she supported as part of her husband's administration. But she also pushed back at Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' attempts to impugn her past positions.
Clinton did not mention by name the North American Free Trade Agreement, a signature accomplishment of Bill Clinton's presidency but one that has soured relations with some facets of organized labor ever since. But she did acknowledge the merits of complaints by unions that the trade deal hurt workers in this country.
"Looking back over the past decades, as globalization picked up steam, there's no doubt that the benefits of trade have not been as widely enjoyed as many predicted," she said.
She vowed that as president she would work to ensure that no future deal would have the same negative impact.
"I won't support any agreement unless it helps create good jobs and higher wages for American workers and protects our national security," she said. "I need to be able to look into eyes of any hard-working American anywhere in our country and say this deal will help raise your income."
Her inability to do that in the case of a pending Obama administration trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, led to her long-delayed opposition to it, Clinton said.
Trade – not to mention Clinton's complicated history with it – has been Sanders' chief issue in Michigan, where manufacturing jobs have been ravaged over the years.
In Lansing on Thursday, Sanders argued that Clinton would probably reverse her view on the Pacific trade deal were she to become president, since as secretary of State she helped come up with the deal. He also criticized her support for NAFTA and subsequent trade deals involving China, Colombia and Mexico.
"She was very, very wrong, and millions of families around America have been suffering because of those disastrous trade policies," said Sanders, who was accompanied by Michigan residents who had recently lost their jobs, a circumstance he blamed on errant trade deals.
In anticipation of Tuesday's Michigan primary, the senator has been airing TV ads in the state asserting that he is the only Democrat who would protect workers in the future. (Clinton's Detroit remarks were filmed by her ad team.)
In a statement released by his campaign after Clinton spoke, Sanders characterized her as offering election-year promises.
"The American people are sick and tired of establishment politicians who promise to create manufacturing jobs during campaign season but support trade policies that make it easier to outsource these jobs the day after they get elected," he said.
Clinton barely mentioned Sanders by name in her speech, other than to note their agreement on spending more on infrastructure and to ding him for his opposition to the Export-Import Bank, which she said was essential in helping American businesses find new customers around the world.
"We should never let ideology get in the way of helping Americans find a good job they need and deserve," she said.
Clinton aimed more forcefully at Sanders -- though not by name -- during a passage in which she appeared to be pointing to his persistent criticism of her views when she was first lady. She said the main job of the next president was to "raise incomes and create the jobs of the future."
"I don't think we can answer that question by refighting battles from 20 years ago," she said. "Anyone running for president owes it to you to come up with ideas … a credible strategy designed for the world we live in now."
Clinton's speech, delivered at a Detroit firm that manufactures injection-molded parts for the auto industry, was meant to tie together threads of economic proposals that she has discussed throughout the primary season. The location was meant to be evocative of what Clinton said was a Detroit that had been broken by economic difficulties but now was "stronger and better." The firm was founded three years ago and now employs 1,000 workers, many of whom gathered to listen to the former secretary of State.
Besides talking about trade, Clinton made a familiar complaint about corporations that fail to look after their employees, and said that any companies that sought to move overseas after receiving tax breaks should have to return the money. She blistered what she called a "casino culture" that focused on short-term gains over long-term benefits to workers and the communities in which companies were sited.
And she defended organized labor, which she said had been under "relentless assault" from Republicans. "When unions are strong, families are strong and America is strong," she said.
Clinton and Sanders both plan campaign events over the weekend in Michigan, and will meet in a debate on Sunday in Flint, the economically distressed auto industry town whose water supply has been tainted by lead.
Clinton has campaigned there before; she left New Hampshire two days before its primary to visit Flint. Democrats have blamed the state's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, for his administration's decision to switch Flint's water supply that led to the poisoning. The Republican candidates for president have praised Snyder for taking responsibility for the damage, but otherwise have largely avoided the issue.
They came in for criticism from Clinton, too, as she mocked their contentious Thursday night debate. "So many insults," she said. "The biggest insult of all was to the American people. The economy -- which should be at the top of any list that anyone running for president has -- was basically an afterthought."