Fact Check.org on Obama/Clinton mailings in Ohio

Analysis

Hillary Clinton Feb. 23 accused Barack Obama of “using tactics that are straight out of Karl Rove’s playbook” with two attack-mail pieces that criticize her stands on trade and health care. “This is wrong, and every Democrat ought to be outraged,” she said, adding: “He is continuing to send false and discredited information.” NAFTA “Boon”?
Both of the mailers Clinton criticized have been around for a while. The most recent deals with Clinton’s views on the North American Free Trade Agreement, and images of its four pages were posted Feb. 13 by Ohio blogger Jeff Coryell. We haven’t previously commented on this one, but Clinton’s statement prompted us to take a closer look.

On the front of the four-page NAFTA mailer appears a headline saying, “Hillary Clinton believed NAFTA was ‘a boon’ to our economy.” But in fact, Clinton never used the word “boon” to describe the effects of the trade agreement on the U.S. economy, and it’s not clear she ever said anything like that.

The Obama mailer quotes a New York newspaper article that ran during her 2006 Senate reelection campaign. Two reporters for the Long Island daily Newsday gave brief descriptions of her stands on a number of issues, including this:

Newsday, Sept. 11, 2006: HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Clinton thinks NAFTA has been a boon to the economy, but voted against the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, saying it would drive jobs offshore.The day after the mailer surfaced, another Newsday reporter, Dan Janison, conceded that the newspaper didn’t get that from Clinton or her campaign.

Newsday’s Dan Janison, Feb. 14: The word [“boon”] was our characterization of how we best understood her position on NAFTA, based on a review of past stories and her public statements. … We do not have a direct quote indicating her campaign told us she thought it was good for the economy at that time.

We frankly find Clinton’s past position on NAFTA to be ambivalent. Bloomberg News reported last year that Clinton “promoted her husband’s trade agenda for years.” Bloomberg quoted her at the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as praising corporations for mounting “a very effective business effort in the U.S. on behalf of Nafta,” and adding, “It is certainly clear that we have not by any means finished the job that has begun.”

On the other hand, Clinton biographer Sally Bedell Smith says Clinton privately argued against NAFTA inside the White House and was “not very much in favor of free trade.” In an interview with Tim Russert on MSNBC last year she said:

Sally Bedell Smith, Oct. 27, 2007: And Hillary was really prepared to try and kill NAFTA. [Special Trade Representative] Mickey Kantor had to take her out … behind the White House, sat her down on a bench, and said, we have to go first with NAFTA. We can come back to health care later, but we have to do NAFTA because we need a success and we need a bipartisan success. And he was absolutely right. And what convinced her at the time was not necessarily the merits of NAFTA, but the fact that it was a good political decision.

So, even then, she was not very much in favor of free trade. And so she is consistent. And Bill Clinton continues to be. So, if they were both in the White House together, I wouldn’t want to be in the middle of that little fight.

Earlier, she was criticized by pro-NAFTA forces for a lack of support. In 1993 pro-NAFTA executive Gary R. Edson of Ameritech Corp. complained publicly of a “deafening” silence from Hillary Clinton during the fight to gain Congressional approval:

Gary R. Edson, Oct. 18, 1993: NAFTA should be made the clear priority, with a concerted campaign involving the entire administration, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose silence on the issue has been deafening.

And about the same time, a National Journal reporter quoted pro-NAFTA lobbyists as complaining that Hillary was undermining efforts to get the trade pact approved out of fear that pushing for it would alienate supporters of the administration’s health care proposal. The headline: “If NAFTA’s Bogging Down, Is Hillary to Blame?”

Update, Feb. 26: Quotes from Hillary Clinton that are favorable to NAFTA mainly date from her days as the first lady, but as we noted last November, her views shifted before she began her run for the presidency. In fact, she was calling for tougher trade rules soon after she and her husband left the White House.

The Obama campaign has pointed reporters to a quote in early 2004, in which she said, “I think on balance NAFTA has been good for New York and America.” But the Obama aides fail to note the full context of that statement. Clinton was giving a long discourse on the need to “revisit” old trade agreements to add tougher standards, consistent with her current position. The occasion was a news teleconference on Jan. 5, 2004:

Q. Senator, do you feel now that maybe some of the past trade deals that have been passed need to be revisited and maybe have provisions for environmental standards and health standards and labor standards added to them?

Clinton: I’ve always thought that. … [All] too often the rules that have been set up to govern trade are not enforced in a fair and effective manner when it comes to American interests. And we have a really important stake in trying to make sure that labor and environmental standards become global and are not just left in one part of the world to the exclusion of the rest of the world. So I think that we need a re-thinking of our trade policies. …

Q. Do you feel NAFTA and GATT should be revisited?

Clinton: … I think we have to enforce the trade rules that are inherent in both NAFTA and GATT.

We also note that Clinton’s statement that “on balance NAFTA has been good for New York and America” is supported by many economists, however unpopular that view may be among Democratic voters in Ohio. Economist Anil Kumar, with the research department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, summed it up in a 2006 paper by saying, “On balance, researchers have found NAFTA a slight positive for the U.S. as a whole.” And the Congressional Research Service, summarizing four studies conducted by the Congressional Budget Office, the World Bank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the United States International Trade Commission, found “modest” but “positive” effects:

CRS, Feb. 4 2004: [By] most aggregate measurements, NAFTA has had only a modest, but positive, effect on the U.S. and Mexican economies and tends to reinforce long-term trends already evident by its inception.

Obama himself has said much the same, as the Clinton campaign quickly pointed out in a mailer of its own (which we also found misleading, because it omitted Obama’s criticisms of NAFTA while quoting only his praise).The Health Care Mailing

The second mailing that Clinton criticized is one we dealt with Feb. 4. It attacks a feature of Clinton’s health plan that would require individuals to obtain coverage. We said the mailer “lacks context” and stretches the facts, but we can’t agree that it is “false” as Clinton says.

The mailer says “Hillary’s health care plan forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can’t afford it.” But it fails to note that Clinton’s plan, like Obama’s, would subsidize the cost of insurance for many, making it more affordable.

We criticized the mailer for exaggerating the differences between Obama’s plan and Clinton’s. Since then both candidates have continued to strain the facts on this issue. Clinton keeps insisting that her plan will cover “everybody,” which isn’t quite true. It’s true that her plan would include some sort of “mandate” to require individuals to obtain coverage. But as we reported Feb. 14, that would still leave perhaps a million persons without insurance, or more depending on how strong or weak her “mandate” turns out to be. She hasn’t specified how she would enforce it or whether she would grant exemptions for hardship cases. Obama also has run ads claiming his plan would “cover everyone,” but we quoted experts who estimated that 15 million or 26 million might be left without insurance unless required to obtain it; he too would have some kind of unspecified enforcement mechanism to ensure children have coverage. And we noted that experts are skeptical of both Clinton’s and Obama’s claims of huge cost savings from their plans.

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