Hillary Rodham Clinton has just been stung by the same bug that zapped her Democratic opponent last month: While the candidates were sending one message about free trade, their campaign strategists were sending another. This brings up two disturbing possibilities. Either Clinton and Barack Obama secretly favor free trade but are pandering to blue-collar voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania by pretending they don’t, or they actually believe their anti-trade rhetoric and simply employed campaign advisors who weren’t on the same page. It’s tough to figure out which is worse, but it will be even tougher for the candidates to escape from the corner they’ve painted themselves into if one of them ends up in the White House.
Clinton on Sunday fired her chief strategist, Mark Penn, after the Wall Street Journal reported that the PR executive was working on behalf of the Colombian government to promote its proposed trade pact with the United States. Clinton has opposed the Colombia deal and, in the run-up to the Ohio primary in March, seemed to be in a contest with Obama to see who could be more hostile toward the North American Free Trade Agreement. Obama probably won the war of words, but he lost on another front when it was revealed that one of his campaign advisors allegedly told Canadian officials that the candidate didn’t really mean it.
For Clinton and Obama, there can be no happy ending to this story. As president, they could either break their promises and embrace trade deals with the likes of Mexico and Colombia, thus disillusioning a key part of their base, or keep their word, thus badly harming foreign relations, damaging the U.S. economy and ultimately reducing job prospects for the very workers they purport to be trying to protect.
The Colombian trade pact sent to Congress on Monday by President Bush represents a win-win for the United States. Colombia already enjoys U.S. tariff preferences, and has since 1991; in exchange for making them permanent, Bogota would eliminate its tariffs on U.S. exports, which would greatly boost American manufacturers. To refuse the deal would alienate pro-U.S. governments across Latin America and push them closer to hostile leftist rivals such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. If Clinton and Obama make good on their promises to revisit NAFTA, meanwhile, it could spark a trade war with Canada and Mexico and reverse more than a decade of growth for all three North American economies.
Bill Clinton proved to Democrats that the party could both support sensible trade policies and win elections. It’s a shame that his potential successors have forgotten that lesson.