Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Lying About NAFTA

Among the many downsides of our ridiculous system of selecting presidential nominees is the state-by-state pander than invariably occurs every four years. In Iowa, politicians pledge their undying love of corn and its byproducts, promising to fuel every car, truck, and lawnmower in America with ethanol by the year 2010. Down in South Carolina, Republican candidates invariably get sucked into yet another divisive conversation over whether the Confederate flag represents heritage or bigotry (it was never clear to me why these categories are mutually exclusive). With California's primary on the horizon, the candidates suddenly turn greener than the grand marshal at the St. Patrick's Day parade. And so it goes, as each state's parochial concerns receive their moment in the sun.

This year, of course, things are even worse, in large part because the Democratic presidential race has been so close for so long. States that haven't received even cursory attention for years have suddenly become critically important to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This is, as I argued yesterday, good for the Democrats, who are busy generating the sort of excitement and commitment that mobilizes voters for November and seduces many of them into a lifetime of political engagement. On the other hand, the length of the primary season has also forced the candidates to continue their unseemly pandering for quite a bit longer than usual.

Because Ohio is one of the two big prizes in today's balloting, the past two weeks have been filled with discussion of trade in general, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in particular. Had Michigan followed the party rules and held their Democratic primary after February 5, we would have already had this conversation. Michigan remains an economic basket case, eager to blame everyone else for its inability to negotiate the transition into the post-industrial 21st Century. Ohio is less troubled than Michigan, but it still houses many thousands of working class voters who have seen their standard of living decline precipitously over the past two decades.

It goes without saying that most things are more complicated than Lou Dobbs would have you believe, and the same is true of NAFTA. The outsourcing of jobs to Latin America was already well underway before Bill Clinton persuaded Congress to link the U.S., Canada, and Mexico into an economic partnership. Further, NAFTA, rather by definition, has nothing to do with the movement of much of America's manufacturing base to places like China and India. The problem with any trade agreement is that the jobs that are lost to overseas markets are visible and easy to quantify; the jobs created through free trade tend to be more difficult to recognize, especially since the connection can be indirect. It is by no means clear that the United States, or even its working class, is worse off as a result of NAFTA than it would otherwise have been.

No matter. Employees obviously know when their factory closes and operations move to Ciudad Juárez (though the folks in Juárez would tell you that they are now losing out to Shanghai). American workers are discouraged and frightened, and desperately want to believe that, with the proper degree of protectionism, it can be 1955 all over again, and working class manufacturing jobs will once more be their family's ticket into the middle class. And both Democratic presidential candidates, who surely know better, are all too willing to pander to these misguided fantasies.

And so Hillary and Barack have been beating a trail from Toledo to Akron promising that NAFTA will be renegotiated. Because NAFTA was enacted on her husband's watch, Obama has been wrapping the issue around Clinton's neck as though she had spent the 1990s as Secretary of Commerce rather than First Lady. For her part, Clinton blames the Republicans for perverting Bill's good intentions by caving in to every corporate demand made during the Bush Administration. But don't worry, Ohio, both Democrats pledge that things will be different once President Obama or President Clinton sits down with officials from Mexico and Canada and hammers out of better, stronger, more pro-American agreement.

The problem with saying irresponsible things about international matters is, of course, the fact that other countries pay attention. The world, for example, watches with mounting concern as John McCain continues to insist that America's disastrous mission in Iraq will remain a long-term project under his presidency. Similarly, the current debate over NAFTA has raised eyebrows both north and south of the U.S. border.

Evidently, this led the Canadian consulate in Chicago to invite one of Obama's key economic advisers over for a chat. According to a leaked memo from the Canadian side, the adviser, one Austan Goolsbee, reassured his hosts that the senator's talk about renegotiating the free trade treaty was merely political rhetoric and that our friends up north shouldn't worry their little ski mask covered heads over it. You can imagine how that story probably played in Youngstown.

Obama, in a truly amateurish move, first denied that any conversation had taken place. Then, faced with the leaked Canadian memo, the candidate of change changed his story, issuing a statement that smelled of the old, traditional D.C. political spin:

"When I gave you [the press] that information, that was the information that I had at the time," Obama said. "It turned out that the Canadian consulate in Chicago contacted one of my advisers, Austan Goolsbee, on their initiative. Invited him down to meet with them. He went down there as a courtesy and at some point they started talking about trade and NAFTA."

Evidently, the dialogue started with some get-acquainted talk about the weather, moved on to a discussion of the latest Black Hawks-Maple Leafs hockey game, and then, after an awkward silence, "at some point they started talking about trade and NAFTA". Whereupon, the Obama adviser just happened to mention that his man was a liar. We've all had meandering conversations like that, though rarely with officials of a foreign government.

Oddly enough, if this is, in fact, the way things transpired, Mr. Goolsbee may be the only honest person in this entire story. Neither Clinton nor Obama is being honest about NAFTA. They might, as president, make a few noises about renegotiation for the cameras, and perhaps their Mexican and Canadian counterparts might allow them some face-saving cosmetic changes in the treaty, but NAFTA is here to stay and both senators know it. For their part, the Canadians who released the memo certainly seemed, as an opposition leader suggested, to be inserting themselves into an American election campaign. The current government in Ottawa, as it happens, is conservative and the prime minister is something of a George W. Bush fan. If this is Act One in the forthcoming relationship between President Obama and P.M. Stephen Harper, we are not off to a good start.

But remember where this all begins. It all begins with a primary election system that makes otherwise intelligent candidates pander to state-level constituencies with deception and half-truths. When the Republicans competed in Michigan, where the GOP primary was fully sanctioned, John McCain had a rare moment of pure honesty. He told the people of Detroit that their auto manufacturing jobs were not coming back and that they needed to deal with that reality. For his efforts, McCain was defeated in the state by the ever-slippery, ever-pandering Mitt Romney.

McCain has scarcely said an honest thing since.

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