Thursday, March 06, 2008

The 'Opting Out' NAFTA Distraction

Now that the Democratic debate over NAFTA has burst into an international incident, it is instructive to read how relentlessly NBC Moderator Tim Russert pressed Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama to take a position on “opting out” of NAFTA.

Neither Clinton nor Obama brought up the “opting out” idea. It was Russert who introduced it by quoting this statement that he said Al Gore made to Ross Perot in their 1993 debate: “If you don’t like NAFTA and what’s done, we can get out of it in six months.” Then, given that both candidates had sharply criticized NAFTA in the Ohio campaign, Russert asked: “Will the [next] U.S. President say we are out of NAFTA in six months?”

Senator Clinton quickly responded: “I have said that I will renegotiate NAFTA, so obviously, you’d have to say to Canada and Mexico that that’s what we’re going to do. But you know, in fairness – “

Russert pressed on, in different words: “You will get out? You will notify Mexico and Canada, NAFTA is gone in six months?”

Clinton: “No, I will say we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate on terms that are favorable to all of America.” She later repeated the same point while renewing her criticism of the absence of labor and environment in NAFTA’s core agreement.

Russert wouldn’t let go. “But let me button this up. Absent the change you’re suggesting, you are willing to opt out of NAFTA in six months?”

Clinton: "I'm confident that as president, when I say we will opt out unless we renegotiate, we will renegotiate."

Then Russert turned to Obama, and after mentioning an AP story about Obama’s supposed ambivalence toward NAFTA, asked: “Simple question: Will you, as president, say to Canada and Mexico, ‘This has not worked for us; we are out?’”

Obama: “I will make sure that we renegotiate, in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about. And I think actually, Senator Clinton’s answer on this one is right. I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced. And that is not what has been happening so far.”

So Tim Russert had his point buttoned up to his satisfaction. But were Obama and Clinton really serious?

Gripped with the same question, diplomats at the Canadian consulate in Chicago thought they would get a candid answer about Obama from someone right there at the University of Chicago: Austan D. Goolsbee, professor of economics and also an advisor to the Obama campaign.

Goolsbee obligingly accepted the invitation to brief the consulate on Obama’s views. Like good diplomats, the Canadian officers took notes, wrote a report, and sent the report to Ottawa. Somehow, it leaked, and its message hit the fan: it soft-pedaled Obama’s tough talk on the campaign trail, specifically claiming that his language was “more reflective of political maneuvering than policy.”

At first, Obama denied that the meeting had taken place (Goolsbee did not report it to the campaign, in the naive belief that he was acting only in his role as a professor). But after the Canadian memo made headlines in Canada and the United States, an Obama spokesperson insisted that Obama’s public position on NAFTA is also his private position. Hillary Clinton insisted he was hypocritical and untrustworthy. And by Wednesday this week Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper himself, spoke up publicly, saying that the consulate report was “blatantly unfair” to Obama and his campaign.

That doesn’t end the debate over NAFTA, and shouldn’t. Both Clinton and Obama need intensive briefings to be able to explain their fair trade positions more convincingly.

Especially unimpressive, in my view, was how they both buckled under Tim Russert’s pressure, and embraced the tactic of Presidential wielding the “opting out” threat to quickstart negotiations. That’s a dumb way for a government to deal with neighboring governments, so dumb that it doesn’t happen in real life, much as it may be favored by pundits and reporters keen about “gotcha” questions based on fanciful scenarios.

Final point. Obviously, Clinton and Obama are far from isolationists, opposed to trade. They know that the economic and other interests of the three nations are such that, with or without a renegotiated NAFTA, the United States, Canada, and Mexico absolutely need some kind of a formal trade agreement among them and that the dispute is only about its contents. This fact is so obvious, I guess, that nobody at the Cleveland debate thought to mention it.

Print Page

No comments: