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Trade Emerges as Big Campaign Issue

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Trade Emerges as Big Campaign Issue

Election 2008

Trade Emerges as Big Campaign Issue

Trade Emerges as Big Campaign Issue

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

One of the issues Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debated Tuesday is the North American Free Trade Agreement. Both candidates say NAFTA needs to be renegotiated. David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal talks to Renee Montagne about the candidates' positions on trade.


Back now to the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, where a 14-year-old trade deal has emerged as one of the big issues.

(Soundbite of audio)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): We need to have a plan to fix NAFTA. I would immediately have a trade time-out.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We have to stop providing tax breaks for companies that are shipping jobs overseas and give those tax breaks to companies that are investing here in the United States of America.

MONTAGNE: Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debating last night in Cleveland.

And for some analysis on where the candidates stand on trade and what difference it makes, we've called David Wessel. He's economic editor of the Wall Street Journal and a regular guest on this program.

Good morning.

Mr. DAVID WESSEL (Economic editor, Wall Street Journal): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, as I just said a moment ago, the free trade agreement NAFTA has been around for 14 years. Why the heat just now in this campaign?

Mr. WESSEL: Well, I don't think it's actually about NAFTA. Even if Senator Obama or Senator Clinton were elected president, actually reopening NAFTA - if they actually succeeded in doing that - would probably make very little difference to any of the workers in Ohio who are so worried about trade.

I think what we see here is a widespread view among many Americans that all the problems of the last several years - lack luster wage growth and all this stuff, their job insecurity - is due to trade. They're probably not right, but they think that trade is the only cause, it's one of them, and the candidates are responding to that.

MONTAGNE: Now, David, before these recent campaign skirmishes was there an obvious difference on trade between the two Democratic candidates?

Mr. WESSEL: Not really. It's very hard to tell their positions in the Senate apart, both were in favor of a recent trade deal with Peru. Both were against one with Central America. Both are very strongly opposed to a South Korean free trade deal that President Bush has negotiated. Both voted to whack China for keeping its currency weak.

You had that clip of Senator Obama talking about using the tax code to reward companies that keep jobs in the U.S. Actually, Senator Clintons in favor of that, too. It was a plan that Senator Kerry proposed during his presidential campaign a while back.

When you talk to people who are around the Bush White House, they say that Mrs. Clinton was a loyal soldier, but never very enthusiastic about NAFTA. When you read Senator Obama's book you find him sounding an awful lot like Bill Clinton, praising the virtues of globalization and proposing to protect workers from it but not to build walls.

So I think a lot of this is what you get when you run for president in Ohio.

MONTAGNE: And on the Republican side, John McCain's stance on trade, how different is it from the Democrats?

Mr. WESSEL: Well, it's very different. Once we get beyond this Democratic fight and we have a race between a Democrat and Senator McCain there will be a clear difference. There won't be arguing about nuance.

Senator McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona, has been a steady supporter of every free trade pact. He's in favor of the Korea pact.

And what's actually interesting to me is that in both parties the candidates most hostile to trade have actually been trounced, whether it was Governor Huckabee on the Republican side or Senator Edwards on the Democratic side.

But once the real general gets going we're going to have a trade skeptic running against a free trader.

MONTAGNE: Well, just very briefly, a lot of tough talk by the Democrats during this campaign. what is the likelihood of big change even if a Democrat is elected?

Mr. WESSEL: I don't think NAFTA will be reopened and renegotiated. And even if it does it won't make much difference. But I think we're at a point where it'll be very difficult for any president, whether President McCain, Obama or Clinton, to push a series of free trade pacts through Congress without some kind of what Hillary Clinton calls a time-out to fix the problems that seem to be motivating so many voters to be skeptical of trade. Things like healthcare, job security, pensions and wages.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.

Mr. WESSEL: A pleasure.

MONTAGNE: David Wessel is economic editor of the Wall Street Journal. And you are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. This is NPR News.

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What's at Stake in the March 4 Primaries?

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Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images hide caption

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Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio.

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Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas. Dave Einsel/Getty Images hide caption

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Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas.

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Read a State-by-State Analysis of March 4 Primaries:

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio. J.D. Pooley/Getty Images hide caption

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Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio.

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The Democratic primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont on March 4 are seen as make-or-break for the presidential campaign of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton needs to triumph in the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio to halt the momentum of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has won 11 consecutive nominating contests since Super Tuesday (including the Virgin Islands and the Democrats Abroad Global Primary). Even her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has said that Texas and Ohio are must-win states if she is going to have a chance at taking the nomination.

For Obama, a successful March 4 could help nudge him toward the nomination and solidify the growing perception that he is the party's front-runner. He will still have to court the roughly 800 Democratic superdelegates, who act as free agents and who can vote for either candidate, regardless of their state's popular vote. (Both Obama and Clinton have been wooing the superdelegates relentlessly.)

The two candidates have been campaigning heavily in Texas (193 delegates) and Ohio (141), focusing especially on those states' respective Hispanic and working-class voters through rallies and advertisements.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain has swept recent primaries in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin, and now delivers speeches with the confidence of a man who is certain to be his party's nominee.

But a recent New York Times article proved to be a major distraction. The article outlined McCain's allegedly close relationship with a female lobbyist, with hints of a friendship that went beyond the professional. (Some commentators make the argument that for someone who stakes his reputation on his honesty and "straight talk," the article has the potential to prove damaging. Others say the story could ultimately help McCain with more conservative Republicans by making the argument that it was an effort by the liberal media to hurt the Arizona senator's prospects.)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee remains a candidate, though since Super Tuesday, when he did well in the South, he has won in just two states, Louisiana and Kansas. (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who has not won anywhere, is staying in the race as well, though he faces a challenge back home for his House seat in the March 4 primary.) Huckabee has said he will continue as a candidate until he or McCain has the 1,191 delegates needed to officially capture the nomination.

The Candidates

The Democrats: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama

The Republicans: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul


The Democrats: Clinton is hoping that her strong ties to Texas will give her a boost. She worked in the Rio Grande Valley 35 years ago, registering voters — a fact she often mentions on local campaign stops. Texans also did well under the Bill Clinton White House, earning posts in the Treasury, Energy and Interior departments, along with two ambassadorships.

But Obama is on a roll. The night of Feb. 19, when he was declaring victory in the Wisconsin primary, he did so from Houston — signifying the importance he places on the state. Texas has an odd dual primary/caucus system, and Obama has done very well in states that hold caucuses; in fact, with the exception of Nevada, he has swept every caucus state.

New Texas polls show the two candidates locked in a dead heat.

Texas Democrats must vote in their senatorial districts by ballot, and then also attend a caucus immediately after the polls close. One hundred and twenty-six delegates will be awarded based on the primary, while 42 Democratic delegates will come from the caucus.

The Republicans: Arizona Sen. John McCain has been popular with Hispanics since he co-authored the ultimately unsuccessful immigration bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Huckabee, whose record also shows a more moderate viewpoint on immigration than some others in the party would prefer, has been campaigning in Houston and San Antonio.

Hispanics are the key demographic to court in Texas and could make up as much as 40 percent of the total electorate. The candidates have been running Spanish-language ads; the Feb. 21 Democratic debate in Austin was co-sponsored by the Spanish television network Univision.

Another key demographic: African-American voters, expected to be 25 percent of the primary electorate.


Ohio's sluggish economy is the key issue in the upcoming primary; unemployment in the Buckeye State is greater than in any state in the region other than Michigan. Candidates of both parties have talked about their plans to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Hundreds of thousands of Ohio's manufacturing jobs have left the area. The state has also been hit hard by high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates.

The Democrats: A recent poll seems to suggest that Obama's support in the Buckeye State is increasing, though Clinton appears to be holding a lead, however tenuous. Two Ohio labor unions, with a combined membership of about a 100,000, switched their backing from former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to Obama. The Illinois senator also has received the national backing of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents more than 1 million truck drivers and warehouse workers. Obama's plans for affordable health care, as well as tax credits for low- and middle-income workers and seniors, could appeal to the state's working class.

Clinton has also campaigned in Ohio, most recently in Youngstown and Columbus. She is hoping to appeal to women and working-class voters, who have made up her base in past primaries. Her health care plan calls for universal coverage, and she has proposed a $70 billion economic stimulus plan that includes a moratorium on foreclosures and an assistance fund for at-risk borrowers. Clinton has started running ads that appeal to blue-collar workers. Her latest Ohio ad begins with the phrase: "You pour coffee, fix hair. You work the night shift at the local hospital. You're often overworked, underpaid, and sometimes overlooked...She understands."

Ohio is not used to playing a decisive role in the nominating process. The last time that happened was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter's victory in the June primary state effectively awarded him the Democratic presidential nomination.


The Democrats: The Clinton name holds much weight in Rhode Island, a state that Hillary Clinton often visited with her husband when he was president. She also has helped fundraise for several state politicians who double as superdelegates, including U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Providence Mayor David Cicciline.

But as Obama keeps building momentum in his campaign, the question becomes: Will he make inroads into Clinton's base? Michelle Obama spent an afternoon campaigning in Rhode Island, where her brother is a basketball coach at Brown University. Providence is a college town, and its university-age voters are overwhelmingly supporting Obama.

The Republicans: McCain visited Rhode Island in mid-February to try to appeal to New England's more moderate Republicans. He won Rhode Island's 2000 presidential primary with 60 percent of the vote.


The candidates have not made Vermont a major priority in this March 4 contest: It offers just 15 Democratic delegates and 19 GOP delegates.

The Democrats: None of the candidates have campaigned in the state so far. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Vermont Democrats have far surpassed the state's Republicans in fundraising for this election cycle, with $1.4 million going to Democratic candidates and $322,000 to Republicans.

University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson predicts that Obama will do well in the state, since Vermont has a history of supporting maverick candidates, such as Howard Dean in 2000. (Vermont also has a senator who is an independent.)

The Republicans: McCain recently made a quick campaign stop. Huckabee is not expected to do well and is not targeting the state.

Vermont has an open primary, meaning residents can cross party lines to vote for the candidate of their choice.