WASHINGTON -- The Democrats' blistering attack on trade has turned it into one of the most inflammatory economic issues of the 2008 election. Ironically, though, its benefits are defended by some of their party leaders and advisers.
Take Hillary Clinton's former chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, who lost his job in her campaign last week when she discovered he was secretly meeting with government officials to promote the Colombian free-trade agreement now before Congress.
Penn, a former adviser to President Clinton, was wearing his other hat as worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller when he met with the ambassador to Colombia, which was paying his lobbying firm $300,000 to promote the trade deal on Capitol Hill. A centrist Democrat, Penn has earned a lot of enemies in the Clinton campaign, but this issue was dear to his heart. He says free trade is good for the economy and good for the countries we trade with.
That was President Clinton's position too, when Penn worked for him as a pollster and campaign strategist, and as far as anyone knows, it's still the former president's belief. He passed the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress and called for similar free-trade agreements elsewhere in Latin America.
Since the Clinton years, Penn has polled for the Democratic Leadership Council, which Bill Clinton chaired and which strongly supports free trade as the best means to lift Third World countries out of poverty and to open up new markets for American exports.
Hillary also supported NAFTA, and she is on record as saying that it was one of her husband's greatest accomplishments. But organized labor told her that the price for its support in her bid for the presidency was to oppose and work against NAFTA and any other free-trade deals. She eagerly paid that price, and Penn lost his campaign job in the process.
Barack Obama ran into some trade trouble too, earlier this year, when his economic adviser, University of Chicago Professor Austan Goolsbee, was caught briefing a group of worried Canadian envoys who feared that Obama's growing anti-trade rhetoric meant he would turn against NAFTA, a critical part of Canada's economy.
Goolsbee allegedly told them not to worry because Obama's rhetoric was more for political consumption and did not reflect his support for bilateral trade agreements. The professor says he was misinterpreted, but conversations I have had with him in the past revealed an adviser who sought to portray Obama as more pro-growth, pro-capital investment and pro-trade than his leftist tax-and-spend-and-regulate rhetoric and voting record suggests.