Steve Chapman

Democrats yearn for the bounteous days of Bill Clinton's presidency, when the economy was flourishing, there were good jobs at good wages, and poverty was on the wane. So it's a puzzle that on one of his signature achievements -- the North American Free Trade Agreement -- the party's presidential candidates are sprinting away from his record as fast as they can. It's as though Republicans were calling for defense cuts while invoking Ronald Reagan.

Even Hillary Clinton can't bring herself to defend the deal her husband pushed through. Asked during a recent debate if she thought it was a mistake, she did everything but deny she'd ever met the man.

"All I can remember from that is a bunch of charts," she chortled, in possibly the least believable statement of the 2008 campaign. "That, sort of, is a vague memory." In the end, though, Clinton declared that "NAFTA was a mistake to the extent that it did not deliver on what we had hoped it would."

She has plenty of company. Barack Obama is on record as saying he "would not have supported the North American Free Trade Agreement as it was drafted." John Edwards has flogged the treaty like a rented mule, calling it "a complete and total disaster." And Dennis Kucinich thinks all copies of NAFTA should be humanely shredded and used as compost on shade-grown fair trade coffee, or something like that.

What did NAFTA ever do to deserve this abuse? Critics claim it destroyed a million jobs -- forgetting that its implementation coincided with the longest peacetime expansion in American history. During that period, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since the Vietnan War. If that was a disaster, I'm Hannah Montana.

Ordinary workers, contrary to myth, benefited from NAFTA. In the decade before it took effect, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average hourly earnings (adjusted for inflation) fell by 5 percent. In the decade after, they rose by 10 percent.

Even supposing the deal did eliminate a million jobs, that actually doesn't amount to much. Every year, millions of jobs vanish and millions materialize, as old companies cut back or close and new ones sprout. What counts is net growth, and since 1994, the total number of jobs in this country has risen by 26 million.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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