Monday, April 07, 2008


John Nichols (The Nation):
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin has been called upon to clean up the mess created in and around Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign by the "revelation" that her former chief strategist, Mark Penn, was more interested in making money from foreign clients than doing right by American workers.

The news that Penn was promoting free-trade deals on the one hand while running Clinton's increasingly populist campaign on the other proved to be the last straw. Penn was finally moved out of the chief strategist position -- even if he is still going to have the ear of some in the Clinton camp.

Garin, who began doing some work for the Clinton campaign last month, has now been given the job of restoring Clinton tattered credibility when it comes to talking about trade policy in particular and economics in general.

With his record of closer ties to labor unions and honorable Democrats -- Garin has worked with the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Service Employees International Union, as well as progressive Democrats such as Russ Feingold, Dick Durbin and Byron Dorgan (although he's also done work for the likes of Dianne Feinstein and Max Baucus), as well as General Wesley Clark's 2004 presidential campaign -- the new Clinton strategist is indeed more credible than the consistently compromising and compromised Penn.

But Garin does not arrive in the Clinton camp with a history of getting everything right when it comes to trade deals.

Consider his commentary with regard to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a hot-button issue on the 2008 campaign trail.

Back in 1993, when the Clinton administration was gearing up to promote the pact, Garin told The New York Times that Bill Clinton could close the deal by playing on the ignorance of Americans regarding trade policy in general and NAFTA in particular.

Citing polling data that said most Americans knew very little about the pact, Garin explained to the Times that the lack of understanding "is definitely to Clinton's advantage, because he still has an opportunity to frame the issue for people. The danger is that this ultimately gets framed as a treaty that ships jobs to Mexico."

As the congressional votes on NAFTA drew closer, Garin shifted to a new argument.

Opponents of the deal driven by fear and emotion, he told the Times. "They feel their livelihoods are at stake."

Backers of the agreement were more thoughtful. "The supporters tend to deal with NAFTA on a more intellectual level," the pollster explained.

As it turned out, Garin was onto something -- as least as far as the Clintons were concerned -- when he talked about playing on ignorance as the best strategy for promoting NAFTA. Bill and Hillary Clinton certainly did that back in 1993, when they aggressively lobbied for NAFTA by peddling a package of lies that seemed absurd at the time and only seem more absurd today.

But Garin was wrong about who was dealing with trade policy on an intellectual level.

It turns out that the critics of NAFTA in the labor, farm, environmental and human rights movements -- who said the deal would harm U.S. industries, depress wages in the U.S. and Mexico, undermine Mexico's farm economy thus spurring immigration and encourage an economic race to the bottom that would eventually see both the U.S. and Mexico losing jobs to China and other Asian countries – were the ones dealing with the issue on an intellectual level.

They were so intellectual, in fact, that they got just about everything right.

It was the supporters, including the Clintons, who relied on emotional messages – with silly suggestions that it was reactionary, protectionist and unduly nationalistic to oppose bad economic policies – and ended up getting everything wrong.

Now that Garin is going to be plotting Hillary Clinton's approach when it comes to trade and other economic issues, let's hope he offers the candidate a sounder perspective than what he was peddling back in 1993.

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