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Hillary Clinton's Rust Belt Rhetoric

A Clinton victory in Pennsylvania—and maybe in the whole primary race—hinges on the same voters her husband's free trade policies betrayed.

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 3:00 AM EDT
If the Ohio Democratic primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was, in part, the Battle of NAFTA, voters in Pennsylvania can expect a rematch as the two candidates head toward the April 22 primary. Like Ohio, Pennsylvania is a beleaguered industrial state that has suffered the damaging fallout of globalization, losing, by one estimate, more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001. "There is no way to avoid this issue in the Pennsylvania primary," Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, says of NAFTA, "and it will only become a brighter line wedge issue in the general election."

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Consequently, the continued success of Hillary Clinton's bait-and-switch tactics on the subject of the North American Free Trade Agreement might have a decisive impact on the primary race. In Ohio, she pulled off a remarkable political feat: While her last name alone should have made her vulnerable on free trade, she countered by campaigning against NAFTA. "Let's get real about NAFTA," she told a cheering audience in economically devastated Youngstown. "I'm going to fix it." Then she blasted what she claimed was her opponent's inconsistent position on NAFTA, a pseudoscandal that her campaign quickly dubbed NAFTA-gate.

Both Clinton and Obama have adjusted their statements on NAFTA to suit their audiences, and it's not certain that either would do much to change this or other existing free trade agreements. Yet heading into Pennsylvania (and after it, other hard-hit manufacturing states like Indiana and West Virginia), Clinton still seeks to portray herself as a working-class heroine, the candidate who can triumph in the Rust Belt states that may prove crucial in November. By doing so, she surpassed her opponent in the rhetoric/reality gap, betting her presidential fortunes on winning the hearts and minds of the very people her husband's policies betrayed—on the very issue that epitomized that betrayal.

Hillary Clinton's own words show clear, long-standing, and largely uncritical support for NAFTA. But beyond this, she has been running hard on her husband's record, taking a share of the credit for everything good that happened in the 1990s, from the economic recovery to peace in Northern Ireland. Yet she now seeks to disavow what may be the single most significant and emblematic event of Bill Clinton's presidency. When he signed the agreement in 1994, with a stroke of the pen Bill Clinton abandoned part of the Democratic Party's core constituency and signed the party on to the neoliberal agenda of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), heralding a new approach to both domestic economic policy and foreign policy. NAFTA, perhaps more than anything else, is Bill Clinton's legacy.

Hillary Clinton has sought to downplay her husband's responsibility for NAFTA. In the same Ohio news conference where she declared "Shame on you, Barack Obama" for distributing flyers misrepresenting her NAFTA position, Hillary asserted that "the agreement was negotiated in the Bush administration. It was passed in the Clinton administration." A year earlier, she told a Time magazine interviewer that "NAFTA was inherited by the Clinton administration," and that while it was "in principle, a good idea to try to create a better trading market between Canada and the United States and Mexico," there were problems with "the terms that it contained, and how it was negotiated under the Bush administration and the failure to have any tough enforcement mechanism." While the basic terms for NAFTA were indeed negotiated under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton was a fervent advocate for the agreement, the man who pushed it through Congress, where the strongest resistance came from his own party. Clinton himself would say, in a 1995 interview with Tom Brokaw, "We took on the NAFTA fight. It was deader than a doornail when I became president, and we brought it back to life."

After NAFTA was approved, in large part with Republican votes, Clinton declared, "The truth of our age is this and must be this: Open and competitive commerce will enrich us as a nation." The corporations and well-off Americans who were indeed enriched in the 1990s would find little reason to question such claims. But those left behind by the boom times may have had a better sense of what NAFTA really represented: a fundamental Democratic policy shift toward the long-held Republican position that a rising tide would lift all boats, and that endless growth through a deregulated capitalist economy and expanded markets was the cure for all ills. It was a lot closer to Reaganomics than it was to the New Deal.

By the end of his presidency, Clinton would sign nearly 300 trade agreements. He championed extending Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China—a move that would have a wider economic impact than NAFTA—and presided over American entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which he said, "It creates hundreds of thousands of high-paying American jobs.... It is the largest international tax cut in history. Most importantly, this agreement requires all trading nations to play by the same rules. And since the United States has the most productive and competitive economy in the world, that is good news for our workers and our future." It wasn't good news for everyone, but a few million American manufacturing jobs were small matters in the context of the larger vision of which NAFTA was a vital part.

In his book American Empire, Andrew J. Bacevich, the former director of Boston University's Center for International Relations, notes that NAFTA was a cornerstone of Bill Clinton's foreign policy. Clinton was the first president to take office in a post-Cold War world, and his campaign mentioned both the genocide in Bosnia and human rights violations in China as appropriate targets for intervention by the world's sole superpower; but once in office, he eased off of both positions. As Bacevich points out, NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements were crucial to the administration's overall international strategy, which Clinton's National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake (now an Obama advisor), described in a 1993 speech at Johns Hopkins called "From Containment to Enlargement." Having won the battle against the Soviet Union, the United States would now work for the "enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies" in a global movement toward democracy and market economics—which were seen as inseparable. This strategy, Lake said, would make the world a "more humane and peaceful" place, but it was hardly a humanitarian venture, since it would also make the United States "more secure, prosperous, and influential." The strategy Lake set out, Bacevich observes, was a plan to "preserve and reinforce American preeminence"—a blueprint for a new kind of American empire.

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