The Bill/Hillary Gap

For all the talk about how Mark Penn undermined Clinton’s credibility on free trade by advising the Colombian government, there’s been less attention to how Bill could be doing the exact same thing.

Today, Ben Smith and Sam Stein fleshed out Bill Clinton’s longtime endorsement of the Colombia free trade deal. Short story, he gave several high-paid speeches throughout Latin America advocating for the agreement and accepted an award from Colombian president Uribe for his help.

Clinton spokesman Jay Carson dismissed the Bill/Hillary divide in a statement as old news:

“Senator Clinton is the candidate for president and she is a clear and firm opponent of the Colombian free trade agreement. Like other married couples who disagree on issues from time to time, she disagrees with her husband on this issue. President Clinton has been public about his support for Columbia’s request for U.S. trade preferences since 2000,” Carson said. “Yawn.”

Not sure about you, but I’m wide awake. Given the degree to which Hillary participated in her husband’s administration, shouldn’t we expect Bill to be as (if not more) influential in hers? Also, there’s a difference between a wanton adviser and a contradictory spouse. You can’t fire your husband. As someone who would arguably be more powerful than any Cabinet member, shouldn’t Bill’s lobbying matter as much as Mark Penn’s?

Then there’s the China issue. Hillary made news yesterday by urging President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. She was smart to get out front on the issue—any chance to relive her 1995 “women’s rights are human rights” moment is worth taking. But if this issue grows as August approaches, her hawkishness will begin to clash with the Clinton administration’s soft China policy. After slamming China for human rights violations in his 1992 campaign, Bill removed human rights standards from China’s Most Favored Nation status requirements for the sake of economic relations. He later became the first president in the world to visit China since Tiananmen Square. (See Peter Baker’s write-up of Bill’s China reversal.)

No doubt Hillary disagreed with her husband’s policy toward China in the 1990s, as she claims to have done on NAFTA, and his actions on behalf of Colombia. But their divergence of opinion now suggests more than a little campaign posturing. No one really believes a President Clinton or a President Obama would be nearly as protectionist as they now claim. “Renegotiating” trade agreements is their blanket term for reform, but that could mean merely adding environmental and labor standards, with little effect on outsourcing. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine either one endangering our cozy relationship with China to make a symbolic statement about human rights, especially with the economy lagging. Once in office, Bill Clinton advocated a “principled, pragmatic approach” to China, which could just as well describe his stance on Colombia and NAFTA. The notion that Hillary or Obama would do anything different will likely vanish at their inauguration.