WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's greatest domestic achievement, aside from abolishing welfare, was free trade. The crown jewel was the North American Free Trade Agreement. He got that through Congress over sustained union opposition in 1993. Monday, Sen. Hillary Clinton proposed that NAFTA and other existing trade agreements be reassessed every five years.
The Washington Post correctly calls Hillary's retreat from free trade "opportunism under pressure," the pressure being the rampant and popular protectionism of her presidential rivals, particularly in protectionist Iowa. But while "opportunism under pressure" suggests (pace Hemingway) cowardice, the better description of Clintonism is slipperiness. Adaptability. Cynicism, if you like.
Note her clever use of terms. Reassessing NAFTA sounds great to protectionists, but it is perfectly ambiguous. It could mean abolition or radical curtailment. It could also mean establishing a study commission whose recommendations might not reach President Hillary Clinton's desk until too late in her second term.
The Post editorial noted "a perverse kind of good news" in Hillary's free-trade revisionism: "There's little chance that her position reflects any deeply held principle." And there lies the beauty not just of Clinton on free trade but of the Clinton candidacy itself: She has no principles. Her liberalism is redeemed by her ambition; her ideology subordinate to her political needs.
I could never vote for her, but I (and others of my ideological ilk) could live with her -- precisely because she is so liberated from principle. Her liberalism, like her husband's -- flexible, disciplined, calculated, triangulated -- always leaves open the possibility that she would do the right thing for the blessedly wrong (i.e. self-interested, ambition-serving, politically expedient) reason.
I could never vote for her because the Clintons' liberal internationalism on display in the 1990s -- the pursuit of paper treaties and the reliance on international institutions -- is naive in theory and feckless in practice. And her domestic policy sees state intervention and expansion as the answer to every human ill from mortgage default to the common cold. Nonetheless, if 2008 is going to be a Democratic year, as it very well could, Hillary would serve the country better than any of her Democratic rivals.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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