A NAFTA Truce?

With a debate in Ohio tomorrow and a primary there a week from now, the Clinton and Obama campaigns have been struggling to distance themselves from NAFTA—and to portray the other as NAFTA’s best friend. But the fact is, both candidates have said good things about the free-trade agreement in the past, and both now condemn it. They should really save themselves the oxygen and declare a truce.

To hear Obama tell it, Clinton’s original sin lies in her husband’s administration, under which NAFTA passed. Obama also cites a quote from Hillary in 2004, when she said, “I think, on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York and America.” An Obama mailer distributed in Ohio claimed that Clinton had said NAFTA was a “boon” to the economy, but it turns out that was Newsday ’s characterization of Clinton’s stance —not her own word. (Even Newsday says Obama’s comments are a misrepresentation.) Her real position seems to be ambivalence—understandably, given that NAFTA has benefited many and hurt many others—but Obama has been quick to exploit it.

Clinton has similar dirt on Obama. During his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama attended an event in rural Shirley, Ill., where he spoke to 100 members of the Illinois Farm Bureau—a group that had decidedly benefited from NAFTA, since it opened up markets for the farmers’ grain. According to an account of the event by the Decatur Herald & Review , “Obama said the United States benefits enormously from exports under the WTO and NAFTA.” The Associate Press confirms this account. So far, so bad.

But the Herald piece goes on: “He said, at the same time, there must be recognition that the global economy has shifted, and the United States is no longer the dominant economy. ‘We have competition in world trade,’ Obama said. ‘When China devalues its currency 40 percent, we need to bring a complaint before the WTO just as other nations complain about us. If we are to be competitive over the long term, we need free trade but also fair trade.’ ”

In other words, Obama’s main point was that the country has to be more aggressive about protecting American interests. If anything, the first part about the United States benefiting enormously was a hedge—a statement meant to lessen the blow of what he was about to say. That doesn’t mean he didn’t say it. It just means it was part of a larger point that the United States can’t rely on free markets to solve all its problems.  

Obama boasts about speaking truth to people who don’t want to hear it. He prides himself on lecturing automakers about fuel-efficiency standards, telling leaders in the Cuban community that we should relax travel restrictions, and talking up merit-based pay in front of teachers. But the Shirley, Ill., instance seems more complicated. He clearly couldn’t say, “NAFTA sucks,” but he seems to err on the side of accommodating farmers—and then says something different to workers losing their manufacturing jobs.

In the world of political campaigns, there are no gray zones. You’re either for a policy or against it. Nuance reads as evasion. Adjustment reads as flip-flopping. Given this, both Clinton and Obama would benefit from dropping the NAFTA issue. Both candidates have complex positions rooted in ambivalence. Neither one’s opposition research is much stronger than the other’s. They can spend the next week bloodying each other with allegations about past statements, but it’s not an argument either person is going to win. There’s plenty worth debating about the future —Obama’s protectionist “Patriot Employers” plan , for example, or the creation of “green collar” jobs. But quibbling over ancient NAFTA statements isn’t benefiting anyone. Save yourselves the trouble. Declare a truce.