NAFTA’s triumph may be Hillary Clinton’s downfall in Ohio primary

Newhouse News Service - February 27, 2008

Newhouse News Service

By John Farmer

CLEVELAND — NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was a signature achievement for Hillary Clinton’s husband, an economic breakthrough, a political victory to celebrate. Now it may be a major liability in Hillary Clinton’s bid to beat Barack Obama in the Ohio Democratic primary Tuesday.

NAFTA, passed in 1993, eliminated most tariffs among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It was President Bill Clinton’s principal contribution to globalization, but today it’s a weapon Barack Obama is using against Hillary Clinton to undercut her support among working-class Democrats.

In the intelligence trade it’s known as “blowback,” the unforeseen and usually dire consequence of what seemed a good idea at the time. It has put Hillary Clinton on the defensive in economically hard-hit Ohio and produced one of the sharpest, angriest exchanges between the two rivals.

It began with an Obama campaign flier over the weekend declaring that “ten years after NAFTA passed, Sen. Clinton said it was good for America.” Within hours Clinton angrily declared she had never said any such thing. “Shame on you, Barack Obama!” she fairly shouted.

Clinton has said she now favors a “time out” on trade deals. And this week she aired a television spot pledging a “fight to change trade deals like NAFTA.”

Not good enough, said Obama, who also favors a tougher line on all trade deals. He said Clinton can’t take credit for “the good things” her husband’s administration did and run from those that didn’t pan out, such as NAFTA.

In Tuesday night’s debate from Cleveland State University. Clinton claimed she was always a skeptic about NAFTA. She remained silent at the time, she acknowledged, but insisted she has opposed the treaty regularly as a senator — something Obama vigorously disputed.

“We will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it … on terms that will benefit all of America,” she said.

Obama said he agreed. “I think Senator Clinton has shifted positions on this,” he said, “and I think that’s a good thing.”

Until now trade generally has been a low-profile issue in the long Democratic campaign. But Ohio has a special beef with U.S. trade policy, which union activists and many Democrats blame for a steep manufacturing decline.

Only Michigan has suffered a greater loss of manufacturing jobs than the 265,000 (23.7 percent) Ohio over the past seven years, mostly as a result of corporate outsourcing and plant closings. It’s the worst jobs loss in Ohio “since the end of the Great Depression,” according to the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, a manufacturers association.

“Trade is an issue here,” said Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, an issue think tank, “and NAFTA is a proxy for trade. … It may hurt Hillary Clinton.”

The political consequences were made abundantly clear two years ago when Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown unseated Republican Sen. Mike DeWine handily, chiefly by denouncing U.S. trade policy.

What’s at stake as the Democratic candidates argue about trade are the votes of one of Hillary Clinton’s prime constituencies — those earning $50,000 or less. Most such workers here are white, with high school educations or less.

Clinton’s lead in public opinion polls here, which one poll put at 21 percentage points last month, has shrunk to 10 points or less in the latest surveys. It’s unclear what role NAFTA may have played in that slide, but one leading Democrat here, who declined to be quoted by name because his boss is still uncommitted, sees it as critical.

“If Barack Obama wins Ohio,” he said, “it will be blowback from NAFTA.”

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