Nation Review – by Byron York – March 4, 2008
For the last several months, the tone of the Democratic presidential debate on the issue of trade has worried government officials in Canada and Mexico. Would a President Barack Obama or a President Hillary Clinton actually pull the U.S. out of the North American Free Trade Agreement? It’s a nightmare scenario in Ottawa and Mexico City — not to mention Washington — and Canadian and Mexican officials have tried as best they can to gauge just how sincere the criticisms of NAFTA coming from Obama and Clinton really are.
Those criticisms have been particularly intense in the run-up to today’s primary in economically struggling Ohio. At last week’s debate in Cleveland, Obama and Clinton dueled to see who could be more anti-NAFTA; Obama won, at least rhetorically, by promising to “use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage” to renegotiate NAFTA on his own terms.
Did he mean it? Or was he just telling steelworkers in Ohio what they wanted to hear? That is the question behind the first real scandal of the Obama campaign. And while the campaign has made several statements on the issue, there are growing indications that officials there are not telling the whole story.
It began last week, when Canada’s CTV television network reported that, in early February, a representative of the Obama campaign assured Canadian officials that they need not take Obama’s NAFTA threats seriously, that those threats were just political rhetoric intended to win Midwestern primaries. The campaign, and the Canadian government, initially denied everything. “The Canadian ambassador issued a statement saying that the story was absolutely false,” top Obama adviser Susan Rice said Thursday night on MSNBC. “There had been no such contact. There had been no discussions on NAFTA.” Obama himself, asked about the story the next day, said, “It did not happen.”
But it turned out that there had been contact, and something did indeed happen. Later news reports identified the Obama adviser as Austan Goolsbee, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who serves as a senior adviser to the Obama campaign. Those reports said Goolsbee met with officials at the Canadian consulate in Chicago, where the NAFTA discussion allegedly took place.
The Clinton campaign picked up the story. “Has Austan Goolsbee had any contact with anyone in the Canadian government, in the Canadian embassy, or tried to send a message to individuals there to indicate that Senator Obama’s criticism of NAFTA was not sincere?” top Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson asked. “It’s a simple question.”
But it wasn’t one the Obama campaign was inclined to answer, and as the weekend began, the campaign continued to deny everything. On Friday, The New York Observer reached Goolsbee himself. “It is a totally inaccurate story,” Goolsbee said. “I did not call these people.”
Then a report from the Associated Press pulled the rug out from under Obama. The report cited a memo written as a record of the February 8 meeting between Goolsbee and a man named Georges Rioux, the Canadian consul general in Chicago. The document was written by Joseph DeMora, a consulate staffer who was in the meeting.
“Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign,” the memo said, according to AP. “He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.”
In another part of the memo, according to AP, Goolsbee repeated some of Obama’s rhetoric on NAFTA but sought to downplay its consequences. Goolsbee, according to the memo, “was frank in saying that the primary campaign has been necessarily domestically focused, particularly in the Midwest, and that much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy. On NAFTA, Goolsbee suggested that Obama is less about fundamentally changing the agreement and more in favour of strengthening/clarifying language on labour mobility and environment and trying to establish these as more ‘core’ principles of the agreement.”
News of the memo changed the whole story, and the Clinton campaign quickly sought to take advantage of it. “At this point what we have is a lot of statements from the Obama campaign that have been proven to be demonstrably false,” Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s chief spokesman, told reporters Monday. “There is a memo surfacing and circulating in the Canadian government that makes clear that the Obama campaign communicated one thing to the people of Ohio about NAFTA and another thing to the Canadian government about NAFTA.”
Wolfson challenged the Obama campaign to own up to the fact that a conversation had indeed occurred. But when top Obama aide David Plouffe spoke to reporters on a conference call a couple of hours later, he wouldn’t concede anything. “This conversation has been discredited by the Canadian government, it has been discredited by our campaign,” Plouffe said. “It is simply a conversation that did not happen.”
It was a surprising assertion. Was Plouffe saying that there was no conversation at all? Even in light of the memo? A few moments later, Plouffe seemed to give a bit of ground. There had been a conversation, he said, but it was nothing official. “This is being reported as somehow this was an official meeting of an Obama representative and the Canadian government,” Plouffe told reporters. “That was not the case. [Goolsbee] was essentially doing a walking tour and was having some casual conversation, and the report on the conversation is just not accurate…This is just a conversation that did not happen in terms of any suggestion of a softening of his position.”
Finally, Plouffe said that, whatever was said, Goolsbee had not spoken to the Canadians as a representative of the Obama campaign. “This was not a formal meeting,” Plouffe said. “This was essentially a tour, and Austan was approached not as a member of our campaign but as a university professor.”
But what about the memo? The Obama campaign had no explanation other than that the memo writer must have been mistaken. Later in the day, though, Obama seemed to get a bit of help when the Canadian government weighed in, releasing a statement that appeared to take Obama’s side:
The Canadian Embassy and our Consulates General regularly contact those involved in all of the presidential campaigns and, periodically, report on these contacts to interested officials. In the recent report produced by the Consulate General in Chicago, there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect.
What is going on? With the evidence we have so far, Obama appears to be in a difficult position. At first, his campaign denied that there was any contact with the Canadian government. Then, when it was forced to concede that there had been contact, it insisted that it had nothing to do with softening Obama’s position on NAFTA. And then, when the newly-released memo suggested that it had been about just that, Team Obama simply stuck with its story.
After talking with people knowledgeable about these events, it’s possible to come to a few early conclusions. One, there was a meeting. Two, the DeMora memo was a good-faith effort to record what went on at that meeting. Three, the conversation did touch on NAFTA. Four, the Canadian government’s statement was a carefully worded, diplomatic message that did not shed any light on whether the key accusation against the Obama campaign — that it privately hedged its position on NAFTA and then misled the public about it — is true. And five, the Canadian statement did say outright that Goolsbee was contacted because he was involved in the Obama campaign, not — as Plouffe claimed — because he was a university professor.
So it’s not likely that the story will go away, given the Obama campaign’s inaccurate and misleading statements about it and the Clinton campaign’s interest in keeping the controversy alive. The only question is whether it will do Obama any significant damage and Clinton any significant benefit.