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August 29, 2008

Making a story where there isn't one

(Disclosure: Global Trade Watch has no preference among the candidates.)

Philip Elliott of the AP writes an unusual story the headline of which is "NAFTA Bashing off the Democrats' Agenda" and the lede of which is: "The once-decried free trade deals of the primaries have been all but abandoned as political boogeymen."

Yet the story goes on to say that both Obama and Clinton campaigned and won primaries based on their NAFTA criticism, and all of the people cited argue that trade is and was a potent political issue.

So what's the evidence for the proposition in the lede and headline?

During the Democrats' nominating convention here this week, nary a mention arose about the North American Free Trade Agreement or its peers... Part of the reason Obama has gone silent on NAFTA is because it riles up some unions and staunch Democrats, but not independent and swing voters. NAFTA is an easy target because some voters blame such trade deals for lost jobs, but its details don't work well in 30-second soundbites.

This last sentence might have been the lede: I think I would advise anyone running for office not to talk about investor-state mechanisms in their nomination speech too, much as I am fascinated by the topic.

The para is also off on its politics: independents and swing voters are MORE trade-skeptical than Democrats, as this Pew poll from May shows:

In general, Republicans express more positive views than do Democrats about the impact of free trade agreements on the United States. Still, as many Republicans see free trade agreements as a bad thing as a good thing (43% vs. 42%). Democrats, by 50% to 34%, say free trade agreements are bad for the United States. A narrow majority of independents (52%) views free trade agreements as bad for the country.

Solid majorities of Democrats (64%), independents (64%) and Republicans (55%) say that free trade agreements lead to job losses - rather than create jobs - in the United States. There also is fairly broad agreement that free trade agreements lower, rather than raise the wages of American workers. Democrats, by nearly four-to-one (57% to 15%) say that free trade agreements slow the economy down rather than make it grow; this also is the prevailing view among independents (50% vs. 18%).

Back to the AP story, there is another confusing para:

"(Democrats) have to tread lightly because Bill Clinton was in the White House (when NAFTA passed)," said Francia. "Democrats have clearly moved away from free-trade agreements."

Uhh, since 2005, it's been pretty clear that Democrats - including Hillary Clinton - are doing anything but showing deference to Bill Clinton's record on trade, which they realize was a political and policy mistake. And a final confusion:

"The NAFTA stuff will, in fact, come back into the campaign dramatically," said Robert Borosage of the progressive Campaign for America's Future. "It's a contrast that makes a great deal of difference in key states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan."

But rivals charge that it's not realistic in the immediate term.

"The Democrats campaign as perfectionists, take advantage of the fact that trade is treated with suspicion ... and harvest votes as critics of trade but being under no obligation to deliver on what they promise," said Phil English, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

Wow, if Phil English's quote was supposed to contradict what Borosage said, mission NOT accomplished. English's quote argues for the continued electoral importance of talking about trade, just as Borosage argued - no one in the story is talking at all about the policy realism of NAFTA renegotiation, an interesting but separate topic.

A good future story would be how English has actually perfected talking tough about trade during his own difficult election battles, but then pushing an unrelenting corporate agenda when he is in Washington.

I don't know if the journalist or editor is to blame for the confused spin of this piece, but I do know that many mainstream outlets have been trying to push this frame of trade fading as in issue into the press for months, despite all evidence.

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