Magazine article The American Conservative

Clintons Bad Trade

Magazine article The American Conservative

Clintons Bad Trade

Article excerpt

Responding to a charge of inconsistency, John Maynard Keynes once reputedly delivered this withering putdown: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Hillary Clinton seems to be consciously echoing Keynes's rejoinder in parrying accusations of flip-flopping this season. She is not really flip-flopping, she assures us. Rather, she is simply adjusting to ever -changing facts.

Here's how she put it in one of the Democratic presidential debates: "Actually I have been very consistent. Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings-including those of us who run for office-I do absorb new information. I do look at what's happening in the world."

In reality, even by the normal standards of American politics, Clinton's inconsistencies have been breathtaking. And in no area has this been so obvious-and so electorally significant-as in international trade.

She is right, of course, that new facts do sometimes emerge. And old ones can sometimes lose their salience. Her problem, however, is that the facts in her universe seem not so much to be changing as ducking and weaving.

Clinton started out a free-trader, then turned against new trade deals, only to switch back to supporting them, and then come out against them once again. Thus, in sharp contrast to other policy thinkers, for whom tearing away from the trade lobby has been a one-way street, Clinton has reversed herself several times.

The more closely you examine her record, the more perplexing it seems. What can be said for sure is that new information hasn't had much to do with her shifting views. Virtually the only new information Clinton has had to "absorb" has been polling data showing that more and more American voters are hopping mad. They have had enough particularly of free-trade deals with nations that never seem to reciprocate America's commitment to market openness.

According to her apologists, Clinton has been a closet trade skeptic all along, but as First Lady she couldn't say so out of loyalty to Bill. This version was notably floated by Huffington Post politics editor Sam Stein in 2008 but, as the New York Daily News commentator Kenneth Bazinet pointed out, Stein's account, relying heavily as it did on the testimony of a single prominent trade lobbyist and Clinton crony, did not withstand the laugh test.

The "closet trade skeptic" story has also been peddled in books by Sally Bedell Smith and Carl Bernstein. It may be relevant to point out, however, that both wrote their volumes long after Clinton and her husband left the White House. Their books, moreover, just happened to have been published in 2008, a time when, in the thick of her first presidential run, Clinton was frantically trying to fabricate a record of trade skepticism.

All the real evidence suggests that as First Lady, she did not diverge much in principle from Bill's energetic efforts to lower America's trade barriers. Rather she differed on priorities. Whereas Bill chose as his priority to shepherd the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress, Hillary regarded NAFTA as competing for time, attention, and legislative support with her own pet project, the ambitious "Hillarycare" health plan.

Once Hillarycare foundered in 1994, however, she came out clearly for NAFTA. In March 1996, for instance, she commented: "I think everybody is in favor of free and fair trade. I think NAFTA is proving its worth." Her comments seemed all the more striking for the fact that they were made to members of the UNITE garment workers' union, which had good reason to hate NAFTA.

Then in an address to the Corporate Council on Africa in 1997, she disclosed an unambiguously ideological commitment to trade liberalization. "Lode around the globe," she said. "Those nations which have lowered trade barriers are prospering more than those that have not." She had evidently tuned out the massive contrary evidence of countless highly successful mercantilist economies throughout history, most obviously post-Mao China. …

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