With rising fervor, Sen. John Edwards has focused on the North American Free Trade Agreement to fuel his pursuit of Sen. John F. Kerry, stressing that the Democratic presidential front-runner supported the accord with Canada and Mexico while he opposed it.
But Edwards, a senator from North Carolina, has a far more nuanced record on international trade than his rhetoric would suggest, supporting some trade initiatives and opposing others during his five years in office.
Edwards hopes to keep up the pressure on Kerry and the trade issue as the campaign battleground shifts to industrial states like Ohio, which holds its primary March 2. There and elsewhere, NAFTA is a dirty word for many Democrats who blame it for job losses.
News accounts corroborate Edwards’ assertion that he went public with his opposition to the accord during his successful initial run for the Senate in 1998 -- five years after NAFTA won congressional approval.
“I campaigned against it when I ran for the Senate,” Edwards told reporters Wednesday.
Speaking of Kerry’s support for NAFTA and other trade accords, he said: “We have very different records on trade.... Records matter.”
For Edwards, criticism of NAFTA serves another political goal, reminding voters of his background as the son of a textile mill worker.
There is little evidence that he made NAFTA a major issue in his 1998 campaign -- in part, an Edwards aide said, because the Republican incumbent at the time also opposed the accord.
Nor has Edwards filled the Congressional Record with anti-NAFTA speeches since he took office in 1999. Lawmakers often give speeches for the Congressional Record, or insert them in writing, on topics near to their heart.
In his first major congressional vote on trade, Edwards voted for a controversial trade accord with China in September 2000 that was bitterly opposed by organized labor.
In 2002, he voted for the initial version of a bill to give President Bush sweeping authority to negotiate new trade deals. He opposed the final version after provisions protecting North Carolina textile workers were dropped.
One veteran free-trade lobbyist in Washington describes Edwards as a “soft” opponent of trade deals, one who is open to presidential arm-twisting.
“He’s never had trade as a major issue on the Senate floor,” the lobbyist said Wednesday. “The strength of his opposition to trade has risen with his presidential campaign.”
Kerry, seizing on that theme during a campaign stop in Dayton, Ohio, noted Wednesday that Edwards wasn’t around when Congress approved NAFTA in 1993.
“He wasn’t in the Senate back then,” Kerry told reporters. “I don’t know where he registered his vote, but it wasn’t in the Senate.
Kerry, of Massachusetts, denied that Edwards had a trade policy more committed to labor rights or environmental protections.
“We have the same policy on trade,” Kerry said. “Exactly the same policy. He voted for the China trade agreement, so did I. And we both of us want to have labor agreements and environment agreements as part of a trade agreement.”
Kerry has long voted a free-trade line that put him squarely on the side of President Clinton and other centrist Democrats. They argued during the 1990s that opening up global markets for U.S. goods and opening up domestic markets to imports made for sound economic and foreign policy, and smart politics in a general election.
Kerry’s new emphasis on labor-friendly trade accords and skepticism of Bush trade policy indicates he has made his own shift during this campaign.
Kerry’s record has differed occasionally from Edwards’ in recent years. In May 2000, Kerry voted for a bill to expand trade with impoverished nations in the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa; Edwards opposed it.
In a major vote in August 2002, Kerry backed Bush’s effort to gain “fast-track” trade negotiating authority, which Clinton had lost after 1994. Such authority allows presidents to submit trade deals to Congress for an expedited vote without any possibility of amendment.
Edwards voted against giving the president “fast-track” authority, after supporting the initial version.
Kerry missed two votes in July 2003 on trade deals with Singapore and Chile; Edwards opposed both accords.
Perhaps because of their records on trade, Kerry and Edwards did not gain much support from organized labor early in the campaign.
Instead, industrial unions that vehemently oppose NAFTA and other free-trade deals sided with Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Gephardt made trade policy a cornerstone of his campaign. He had proposed to fight for an international minimum wage and renegotiate NAFTA and other accords.
When Gephardt dropped out of the race in January, his labor supporters were caught off guard. Many analysts viewed the trade issue as a nonstarter.
But Edwards has begun to take up where Gephardt left off. Frequently he laments what he calls a “race to the bottom” in labor conditions around the world and pledges to fight against child and slave labor, much as Gephardt did.
But it is Kerry who picked up Gephardt’s union backers, as well as the endorsement of Gephardt himself. Today, Kerry is expected to get the formal backing of the AFL-CIO.
None of those developments appear to faze Edwards. He believes he has found an issue that resonates with many primary voters. Last week, for example, he drew favorable publicity after meeting with Milwaukee steelworkers expected to lose their jobs to Mexico.
“I know that this issue of jobs and trade is a powerful issue, one that people relate to,” Edwards said Wednesday. “I understand what the loss of a job means to a worker’s sense of dignity and self-respect.”