Election 2008

Presidential Race Spotlights Politics of Free Trade

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Compared with Europe or China, the U.S. trade relationship with Colombia is probably not important enough to decide the future of our economy. But that hasn't stopped it from becoming a focus of this year's presidential campaign.

A free trade deal with Colombia is the reason that Hillary Clinton demoted a top adviser. He lobbied for it, while she's against it. Now President Bush is forcing Congress — including Clinton — to act on the deal.

Usually, White House events are scheduled a day or two ahead of time. But on Monday, officials announced with two hours' notice that President Bush would talk about the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.

"This agreement will advance America's national security interests in a critical region. It will strengthen a courageous ally in our hemisphere. It will help America's economy and America's workers at a vital time," he said.

The president has been a fierce fighter for the trade deal for months. But he surely realized the timing of his speech was no help to a prominent Democrat — Hillary Clinton, who has said she opposes the deal.

Clinton's problem is that her longtime chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, helps run a public relations firm that has been promoting the trade agreement. Given the apparent conflict, Penn stepped down Sunday — although he will remain as an adviser and pollster for the Clinton camp.

That was not enough to erase the contradiction, though. After the president's speech, Clinton released a statement saying she has consistently opposed a trade deal with Colombia, in part because of violence against trade unionists in the country. And there is a lot at stake for Clinton, since she has made her concerns about trade a centerpiece of her campaign — especially in Pennsylvania.

"I believe we need a timeout on new trade deals. I've been saying that for some time now. We've got to have new trade policies before we have new trade deals," she said at an AFL-CIO gathering in Philadelphia last week.

Her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, has staked out a similar position, and the candidates have been looking for any opening to attack one another. Clinton's moment came last month, when there were reports that Obama aide Austan Goolsbee met with Canadian officials to downplay Obama's opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

While there were different accounts of the meeting, Clinton at the time slammed reporters for not making the Goolsbee meeting a bigger deal.

"I would ask you to look at this story, substitute my name for Sen. Obama's name, and see what you would do with this story," she said.

Four weeks later, Clinton got to see how reporters handled a similar, if not identical, story about her own adviser. Penn is among the most loyal of Clinton's inner circle. In 1996, when he was President Bill Clinton's pollster, he talked about why Clinton was popular.

"By 57 percent to 37, the voters say that he is a different kind of Democrat from those who've run from president before him," Penn said.

But if Bill Clinton won as a new kind of politician, Penn took a different approach with the former first lady. He wanted to establish Hillary Clinton as the candidate of experience. And on countless conference calls with reporters, Penn has tirelessly repeated the central message: "Going forward, the country needs somebody ready to be commander in chief on Day 1." And the candidate has certainly echoed her strategist.

Some Clinton insiders have long felt Penn focused too much on the experience issue. Many have faulted him for a strategy of inevitability that failed to produce its intended early knockout. But Hillary Clinton has resisted distancing herself from Penn at all — until his misstep on the volatile issue of trade.



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