Why Won’t Democrats Talk Straight About Trade?

Bill Scher

For Politico Magazine, I analyzed the recent shift in position by Hillary Clinton on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Here’s an excerpt:

While Hillary Clinton is probably lying about her newfound opposition to President Barack Obama’s trade deal, that doesn’t tell us much about her character. She is simply doing what every Democratic presidential nominee has done on trade for the past three decades: campaign one way, govern another.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton tried to walk a fine line between President George H. W. Bush’s firm support for NAFTA, which he negotiated, and independent Ross Perot’s warning of a “giant sucking sound of jobs being pulled out of this country.” In the final presidential debate, he sought to impress both camps: “On balance, it does more good than harm if, if we can get some protection … so that the Mexicans have to follow their own environmental standards, their own labor law standards.”

The following year, Clinton nominally followed through by inking side agreements on labor and environmental protections. But he was advocating for passage before those side agreements were finished, agreements that were eventually derided by NAFTA opponents as lacking enforcement mechanisms.

Clinton’s vice president made these same sort of political calculations. While in office, Al Gore became the leading spokesperson for NAFTA, famously debating Ross Perot on CNN as he defended the deal by comparing it to “the creation of NATO, the Louisiana Purchase [and] the purchase of Alaska.” Gore had borrowed that line from Senator Bill Bradley after receiving his help with debate prep. Six years later, Bradley challenged Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Gore campaign fed the Bradley’s version of the quote to friendly labor leaders, who then used it to publicly trash Bradley as excessively pro-trade despite Gore’s own history with the comparison.

The anti-free trade rhetoric continued into the 2004 primaries, when Sen. John Kerry drew attention from his 1993 vote for NAFTA by railing against “Benedict Arnold” companies, “who take the jobs and money overseas and stick you with the bill,” assuring voters that “we are not going to give [them] one benefit or one reward.” But with the primaries, and the pressure from anti-free trade rival Rep. Dick Gephardt behind him, Kerry clarified his earlier remarks to the Wall Street Journal: “The Benedict Arnold line applied, you know, I called a couple of times to overzealous speechwriters and said, ‘Look that’s not what I’m saying.’ Benedict Arnold does not refer to somebody who in the normal course of business is going to go overseas and take jobs overseas. That happens. I support that.”

As recently as the 2008 primaries, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama accused each other of being pro-NAFTA, taking advantage of the fact that both had a mixed record on trade. Obama pledged at an early debate he would work with Canada and Mexico to “try to amend NAFTA, because I think that we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now.” Now, he is promoting TPP. His former secretary of state, who in the negotiation phase said TPP “sets the gold standard in trade agreements,” is disparaging it.

Why does this keep happening? Why is it that on this particular issue, Democratic leaders are unable to be consistent and transparent?

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