Obama, Clinton & the NAFTA Kabuki Dance

Why when polls show overwhelming opposition to NAFTA-style trade policies are two leading Democratic candidates talking out of both sides of their mouths on the issue?
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We are watching something truly absurd - and that says a lot for the generally absurd realm of American politics.

Earlier this week, we saw Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) promise to call a "time out" on passing NAFTA-style trade deals if she is elected president - a promise that was made just four days after she quietly announced she would be casting a vote to enact a vote for the Peru Free Trade Agreement - the latest NAFTA-style trade deal moving through Congress.

Now, today, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is criticizing Clinton for being a part of the previous administration that passed NAFTA-style trade deals. It's fair criticism, of course - but not if you yourself have already promised to vote for the same NAFTA-style trade policy in the near future.Yes, Obama's criticism comes just a few weeks after Obama himself declared he, too, would be voting for this same NAFTA-style trade policy moving through the Senate.

The Associated Press reports that Obama told an audience of union workers that he "vowed to fight any deal that doesn't protect workers and the environment." Clinton has made the same promises. Both square this circle by claiming the NAFTA-style deal they are going to vote for does include strong labor and environmental protections. Yet, Washington's top corporate lobbyists have long ago told the public that the supposedly strong labor protections in the NAFTA-style deal he is going to vote for "cannot be read to require compliance." Meanwhile, no major environmental, labor, human rights, anti-poverty, consumer protection or religious group in either Peru or the United States has endorsed the deal. In fact, most of them have put out statements strongly criticizing the deal.

Obama and Clinton also both say that they are going to oppose proposed NAFTA-style deals with Colombia and South Korea, based on their complaints about those specific countries. That's good, but it still means they are endorsing the NAFTA trade model - which is the most important point of all. As I told Alternet's Joshua Holland regarding Clinton's position:

"What's going on here is that she is endorsing the NAFTA trade model, but saying that she has problems with certain countries' specific behaviors. And that's what's really telling. She is saying she has no problem with trade deals rigged to crush American and foreign workers on behalf of Wall Street, and that the only real reason to ever oppose that model is if there are other problems/complications with the specific country in question."

So let's just step back and ask a simple question: What the hell is going on here? Why when polls show overwhelming bipartisan opposition to NAFTA-style trade policies are two leading Democratic candidates talking out of both sides of their mouths on the issue? NAFTA-style trade policy is so unpopular that even Republicans like Mike Huckabee are using it to climb in Republican presidential primary polls. So, again, what the hell is going on here with Clinton and Obama?

This is a tougher question than it seems. Some of it has to do with the culture of Washington - a culture that, as I reported in a recent syndicated column, is dominated by a revolving door of insiders who seamlessly glide between raking in huge cash as corporate lobbyists, advising candidates on economic policy and holding high government positions.

Both Clinton and Obama's campaigns are, to varying extents, immersed in this culture, whether it's Clinton's lead consultant simultaneously running a union busting operation, or whether it is Obama's chief adviser being the former top staffer to Bob Rubin - the icon of the Wall Street Democrats who has personally threatened Democratic presidential candidates should they represent the populist line.

Many of these hangers on are hoping for a high level administration job if their candidate gets elected - but they want to make sure they still have the option of living it up on K Street if their candidate loses, and so their advice tends to be cautious on corporate issues like trade. They tell their candidates not to actually represent the will of the public, but to make sure not to offend Big Money.

Then, of course, there is Big Money itself. Clinton has raked in so much corporate cash that she was recently celebrated on the cover of Fortune Magazine. Obama, meanwhile, is Wall Street's darling, according to campaign finance reports. These contributions to both candidates come from industries that have a stake in preserving the NAFTA-style status quo - and, as anyone who has worked a day in politics knows, big campaign checks come with an expectation of complicity.

And so this is what we get - a kabuki dance from candidates who pray that voters are too dumb to figure it all out. Here we have two candidates going before workers telling them they will really represent them by opposing sell-out trade deals, and then telling the elite political Establishment that actually, they will continue voting for those very same trade deals when they hit the floor of the Senate. Perhaps even more ridiculous, we have one of these candidates - Obama - actually attacking Clinton for supporting the very job-killing, wage-destroying trade model that he himself has already said he is going to vote for.

Give credit where credit is due - Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich have all refused to equivocate on this issue coming down the pike. They have all said they strongly oppose the Peru Free Trade Agreement. They realize in the era following the "for it, before I was against" it fiasco, you should probably straight-shoot voters by telling them whether you are for it or against it - for trade policies that crush the middle-class, or against them. And trying to pretend to be both is just silly.

Some of these politicians voicing criticism of our lobbyist-written trade policies admittedly have mixed records on this issue, but at least they aren't so desperate to appease Big Money that they are resorting to demeaning voters by treating us like we're idiots. Treating voters with a shred of respect doesn't sound like much, but in our absurd political system, even that is a rarity these days.

Cross-posted from CAF

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