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David Sirota
David Sirota
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A Trade Transformation


When it came to sex, Bill Clinton made us debate the definition of "is." Now, when it comes to economics, Hillary Clinton wants to debate the definition of "long," claiming this week in Ohio that "I've long been a critic of the shortcomings of NAFTA."

True, Clinton has recently criticized NAFTA — the 1993 trade policy whose lack of labor and environmental protections encourages companies to move American jobs overseas. But cheap campaign rhetoric over a few months does not make one a longtime critic — especially considering the record.

During Clinton's 1996 visit to Texas, United Press International reported that she "touted the president's support for NAFTA." In her memoir, Clinton trumpeted her husband's "successes on the budget, the Brady bill and NAFTA." The Buffalo News reports that in 1998 she "praised corporations for mounting 'a very effective business effort in the U.S. on behalf of NAFTA.'" And last year, her lead Wall Street fundraiser told reporters that Clinton remains "committed" to NAFTA's "free" trade structure.

Clinton's attempt to hide this history emulates a principle pioneered by George W. Bush in this, the age of stenographic journalism. As he made his unsubstantiated case for war, Bush proved that the media are willing to present politicians' lies as fact. Clinton simply figures that if she says she has "long been a critic" of NAFTA, then the assertion will be transcribed as truth.

That said, her U-turn is about more than dishonesty — it is about the public will.

Back when Clinton was the Democrats' presumptive nominee, she wasn't saying much about trade. And in amassing her much-vaunted "experience" in Congress, she never led a fight to reform NAFTA. But now that she is in a competitive nomination contest, Clinton has to try to make her record palatable to voters rather than to corporate lobbyists — and that means reflecting America's understandable anger.

A September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 59 percent of the country believes existing trade policy "has been bad for the U.S. economy." In January, Fortune magazine found 68 percent believes other countries "are benefiting the most from free trade, not the U.S." Exit polls in 2004 showed 70 percent of Ohio Democratic voters blamed trade policies for job losses, and those numbers could be even higher in the state's March 4 primary.

Shrewdly, Barack Obama is promising to transform trade policies so that they do not encourage outsourcing.

He is also reminding voters of Clinton's support for NAFTA. The two-pronged message, while belated, perfectly illustrates the difference between "change" and "more of the same" — and not just in the primary.

The Illinois senator says he wants to win back blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" in the general election. His populism on trade will help.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that "by a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is bad for the U.S. economy." Similarly, a Democracy Corps poll showed that unfair trade policy was the top concern of self-described Republicans who considered casting a Democratic vote in 2006. Against NAFTA cheerleader John McCain (R), Obama's fair trade position can win over these disillusioned voters.

The media will be the big obstacle. Though the public wants reform and BusinessWeek reports that economists are reconsidering their support of NAFTA-style trade deals, the Washington punditburo has long worshiped the status quo on this issue.

When NAFTA was originally debated and polls showed the country divided over its passage, the Washington Post's editorial page editor Meg Greenfield justified her refusal to publish anti-NAFTA commentary by saying that "columnists of the left, right and middle are all in agreement" in support of the deal. Today, that Orwellian blackout has mutated into an onslaught, with the Post's editorial board lambasting Obama for his fair trade rhetoric.

But as Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told The Nation magazine, the naysaying should be ignored. Brown said the media attacked him for opposing NAFTA, "And so what? I won by well into double-digits, in a slightly Republican state, against an incumbent."

If Obama heeds that advice, neither Clintonian obfuscation nor media vitriol can stop him. He will be on his way to victory and, more importantly, to building a real mandate — one that will finally force Washington to fix America's broken trade policy.

David Sirota is a bestselling author whose newest book, "The Uprising," will be released in June of 2008. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at



10 Comments | Post Comment
Dave, I liked your article and I think it shows the general diffrences regarding "free trade" and job outsourcing of jobs between Hillary and Barack. However, I wonder if there is a way to be more specific in terms of what is really happening to people directly being effected. For example, it would be interesting to follow a person who lost his or her job, where the job went (if overseas) and what adjustments that person had to make in his/her lifestyle. Thanks for your always enlightening information
Comment: #1
Posted by: Sam Taylor
Fri Feb 22, 2008 7:02 AM
Very good article; investigative reporting, that's what I like to see. Call the lies and deceit out for what they are.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Bret Hughes
Fri Feb 22, 2008 9:37 AM
So why did Obama support Peru Free Trade? He dismissed John Edwards' question of Obama's support of PFT by saying that Peru's economy was only the size of New Hampshire. That is a troubling pattern that I see with him i.e. being dismissive of real people in favor of some kind "big idea". 4 million farmers protested Peru FTA. I find the idea of dismissing 4 million people as not being significant enough or our peas and asparagus farmers who will be ruined by Wal-Mart's planned canning factory in Peru very...well.... Reaganesque. Where people see some sort of groovy guy, I keep seeing a cold heart with angry eyes. We are screwed with any of these candidates. But you can always hope. Not me. I'm done with it.
Oh and doesn't Citigroup want to make sure it keeps its grip on poor Peru's Social Security investments? Must be worth a little chump change for them to be interested.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Diane Kamp
Fri Feb 22, 2008 10:16 AM
Did any of the main candidates talk about campaign finance reform in any of the debates?
I can only watch a small portion before I have to turn away.
Regarding free trade agreements, David is right on target..."Bragging rights" were claimed early on by both the Clintons back when.....It was passed; has been a disaster for labor and small business....
The 24 states that participated in Super Tuesday have lost more than 1.5 million jobs since the passage of the Clintons' Robert Rubin (CitiCorp fame).
Tho the issue of "globalization" is complicated; there are no easy solutions, no candidate either Dem or Repub is going to face down the major Western corporations and modify NAFTA, CAFTA....etc....
We may become a Banana Republic without the benefit of the Bananas!
Comment: #4
Posted by: sierra
Sat Feb 23, 2008 6:58 AM
Though I completely I agree with Dave's views on free trade and outsourcing, I disagree with his characterization of the differences between Clinton and Obama. Regardless of Hillary's previous position on NAFTA and free trade, she's made tangible policy statements IN OPPOSITION to free trade and NAFTA. She has now said, on multiple occasions, that she wants a "time-out" on new free trade deals. This is far better than anything Obama has said. In fact, Obama still makes pro-free trade sounding statements, such as "It is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that we have trade." This is not the time to be publicly stating how "essential" trade is. This is the time to state how "damaging" unrestricted free trade is. Obama's stated emphasis is completely wrong, and it indicates his priorities are also wrong.
In addition, Hillary's alleged 2006 "support" of NAFTA was a mis-statement by the news source that published it. They have since acknowledged their statement was own interpretation (mis-interpretation) of Clinton's position at the time, and was NOT based on her public statements. They has since RETRACTED their statement of Clinton's position. Meanwhile, Obama has NOT retracted his regurgitation of their mis-statement, and continues to use this knowingly false statement on the campaign trail.
The most important position on trade, however, is the one the candidate CURRENTLY takes, not their alleged or actual position in the past. There is nothing tangible in any of Obama's current demogogic rants, that indicates he opposes free trade. If one listens at all, it becomes clear that Clinton is currently more anti-free trade than Obama. And by a lot.
Whether she was wrong in the past is now immaterial, if she has changed an earlier wrong-headed position.
If you want change in our current pro-Globalist trade policy, Hillary is more likely to bring about that change.
Comment: #5
Posted by: unlawflcombatnt
Sat Feb 23, 2008 6:01 PM
While I agree with Mr Sirota's condemnation of politician's and corporation's sell out of America, he seems unwilling to admit that the average American has gone along with the globalization of the economy as long as it benefitted them with low priced goods and now that it's true impact of lowering the standard of living for everyone is becoming more and more clear we all start crying out in protest. The bait was dangled to us and like greedy little fishes, we took it.
We are living a standard of life we have not earned and now the bill is coming due. The solution is to renouce our global, militaristic empire, cut military spending 1/3, rid ourselves of the Bush tax cuts, rework our trade deals, spend on our infrastructure, education and provide universal health care and to stop thinking of ourselves as consumers and become citizens with a civic minded approach to life. A vote for Dennis Kucinich, in other words.
Comment: #6
Posted by: michael nola
Sun Feb 24, 2008 11:13 AM
In 1992 & 1996 an unknown politician came on the scene. He said that if he was elected he would eradicate the special interest groups (corporate America) effect on politics. He had mentioned that if NAFTA was implemented, there would be a great "sucking sound" as jobs leave America to Mexico & Canada. His name was Ross Perot.
However, most Americans thought that Mr. Perot was being alarmist. With Bill Clinton's charm, he convinced America into accepting his ideas that NAFTA was good for America. Supposedly this would stem the tide of illegal immigration. Mexicans would want to stay in Mexico as their standard of living increased.
Mr. Clinton's goal was that blue collar jobs would travel to Mexico. Thus, Americans were asked to revamp themselves into new careers/jobs. I'll come back to the outcome of this shortly.
Under Bill, if NAFTA wasn't enough, China received technology for putting multiple nuclear warheads on missiles. General Electric was selling sophisticated engines to the Chinese as well, with the caveat that the Chinese could make these engines themselves after they bought a certain # of them.
In 2001, Bush Jr, signed a bill giving China permanent trade status. Not only did we give China a military edge but now we made them a permanent trade partner. However, Mr. Clinton paved the way for this to happen.
The thought was that if China became capitalistic, they would also reform into a democratic nation. In the 6-7 years that have transpired has that happened? Since China joined WTO have they upheld human rights in their country? Have they allowed their currency to float in the free market system?
The article stated that bringing free trade to America was one of her husband's biggest achievements! Has Hillary done anything in Congress to reverse NAFTA? After all, isn't she a senior member of Congress? Aside from the recent rhetoric, does she even want to reverse NAFTA? John McCain was a supporter of NAFTA also.
This is the first generation where the younger generation has more education but will have a lower standard of living than their parents. Why? This is due to the outsourcing of jobs. When the only job a college grad can get is working at McD's, the wage he gets will be considerably lower than what he would make as a programmer, system admin, etc.
Americans are losing their homes due to Corporate American greed. Nowhere else do countries allow subprime loans wreck havoc amongst their citizenry. Do any of the candidates advocate regulation of the banking industry?
It's time we have a candidate that will protect American interests, especially the middle class. As Hillary said, "The rich have a president. His name is Bush." (paraphrase). However, the answer isn't Hillary either as mentioned by her free trade IN ONE DIRECTION stance.
Too bad Ross Perot isn't running. We sure could use him now.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Philip
Tue Feb 26, 2008 6:23 PM
Re: sierra

This country is in a pitiful state of affairs. I don't know why anyone would want to be president at this time. That person will inherit a woeful of problems started mainly be the current & previous presidents.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Philip
Tue Feb 26, 2008 6:27 PM
Re: michael nola

You referred to our thirst for low cost goods. I didn't really have a choice. If I had a choice I would've selected American goods.

Chinese products were found everywhere. For a while, even kids were jackets that said on the outside, "Made in China."

If I didn't want to commit financial suicide, I had to go along for the ride. The same goes for many Americans.

However, if the imports didn't come in, the middle men would've gotten less & my cost at the retailer would only be a little higher.

Besides, the jobs would still be here.
Comment: #9
Posted by: Philip
Tue Feb 26, 2008 6:35 PM
Re: Philip
My point was that we were told only jobs that were low end manufacturing would be lost and that America was the land of high tech 21st century jobs; this line of BS was started 25 years ago and was just the bait for people who thought they would not be impacted in their higher paying jobs. As far as having no choice, that is largely but not entirely true today, it wasn't always that way. When asked, most Americans and the people I know care not at all about country of origin, only $$$. Thus are $800 billion dollar trade deficits made. Just wait until the Chinese start exporting cars here. I myself buy American whenever possible, even if it costs more, I'd rather see you employed, Philip, than someone in any foreign country, especially Communist China.
To sum up our current situation, what goes around, comes around.
Comment: #10
Posted by: michael nola
Wed Feb 27, 2008 7:39 PM
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