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A Clinton Distancing Act

Even as Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, she's distancing herself from some of his policies. (AP).

They sat around a table in the dwindling days of the campaign and debated what to do about the North American Free Trade Agreement. Some advisers wanted the candidate to oppose it, others wanted him to support it if for no other reason than to take the issue off the table. In the end, Bill Clinton decided to support NAFTA as long as side agreements could be reached to strengthen labor and environmental protections.

That was the fall of 1992 and now, some 15 years later, one can imagine a similar debate taking place in another Clinton campaign. This time, the candidate came out on the other side. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's slow-motion repudiation of one of her husband's signature achievements, culminating in her statement last week that NAFTA had been a "mistake," signals both the changing political environment and a different style of Clinton campaign. Forget the Third Way. Maybe the First and Second Ways weren't so bad after all.

This was not the first time Hillary Clinton has distanced herself from Bill Clinton's policies or governance philosophy. She has vowed to scrap the "don't ask, don't tell" rules her husband put in place allowing gays to serve in the military but only if they do not admit to being gay. She has called for repealing part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which tried to limit the spread of same-sex marriage and which her husband signed, albeit reluctantly. And she disagreed with her husband's statement that there should be a presidential exception to a torture ban in case of imminent terrorist threat. Republican strategists are quietly happy that she has not gone Bill Clinton's way. "She lacks her husband's political gifts and rejects much of the centrism he championed," Karl Rove, President Bush's former chief strategist, wrote in his inaugural Newsweek column, headlined "How to Beat Hillary."

On some level, of course, it's not all that surprising that Hillary Clinton would feel it necessary to take different positions than her husband in discrete situations. She needs to demonstrate that she is her own person and circumstances have certainly changed since the 1990s. The Democratic base always opposed NAFTA but today some strategists believe the party more broadly has turned against free trade, or at least free trade as it has been practiced. Don't ask, don't tell may have been a step forward for gays in 1993 but all these years later has become a symbol of discrimination.

At the same time, it's an extraordinary thing that she would renounce one of the central legacies of her husband's presidency. NAFTA was not just a passing policy, it helped define Bill Clinton as a new kind of Democrat. He took an agreement negotiated by his Republican predecessor, George H.W. Bush, negotiated new side agreements to address labor and environmental concerns and waged an enormous battle to win bipartisan approval in Congress. Hillary Clinton was privately aggravated that Bill Clinton decided to push NAFTA before her health-care plan, but otherwise stood with her husband at the time.

She has been steadily distancing herself from NAFTA over the last few months, saying it needed to be "fixed" and had not worked as well as it should have. She went furthest, though, in last week's Democratic debate in Las Vegas when asked flatly if it had been a mistake. "NAFTA was a mistake to the extent that it did not deliver on what we had hoped it would," she said. "And that's why I called for a trade timeout. When I am president, I am going to evaluate every trade agreement." Still, her timeout seems somewhat situational; she voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement last year but has plans to vote for a pending free-trade deal with Peru because, she said, it includes more of the kind of protections she favors.

In explaining her policy shift, she has tried to disassociate her husband's administration from responsibility for NAFTA. "NAFTA was inherited by the Clinton administration," she told Time magazine's Karen Tumulty in February. But that ignores, of course, the fact that Bill Clinton's trade representative spent seven months negotiating side agreements that satisfied the president's concerns at the time before pushing it through Congress, meaning the deal that passed was not strictly the one left by the first President Bush. And the trade representative who negotiated those agreements? Mickey Kantor, who chaired the 1992 campaign and is supporting Hillary Clinton this time.

Her Democratic rivals pounced after last week's debate to accuse her of flip-flopping. "I think it's important to note that Senator Clinton was a cheerleader for NAFTA for more than a decade," Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) said at a news conference with United Auto Workers representatives in Iowa on Sunday. "I realize that changing your position to suit the politics of the moment might be smart campaign tactics but isn't the kind of strong, principled leadership America needs right now." Obama's Web site posted a page of statements highlighting her switch, including a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle calling her stance "clearly a flip-flop favor to unions and industry sectors hit by layoffs and cheap imports."

Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), meeting with union nurses in Nevada the morning after the debate, mocked Clinton for laughing when asked about NAFTA. "One moment from the debate stuck with me - when Senator Clinton was asked about NAFTA and she tried to joke about charts and laugh about it. For the one million Americans who lost their jobs because of NAFTA, this isn't a laughing matter." Some anti-NAFTA bloggers likewise accused her of laughing about the trade pact.

That actually distorts what happened. CNN's Wolf Blitzer, serving as moderator, recalled the NAFTA debate in 1993 between then-Vice President Al Gore and former presidential candidate Ross Perot and asked Clinton if Perot was right after all. Clinton and the audience both laughed at the mention of Perot and she quipped that all she remembered of that debate was his charts. That was a joke at the expense of Perot, not NAFTA or people who lost jobs, and then she went on to give a serious answer about trade.

But it was the serious answer that was so telling. By rejecting NAFTA, don't ask don't tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, she has signaled that she does not plan to take the same tack her husband did in trying to find a middle path, the so-called Third Way, between liberal and conservative orthodoxies. While she has been more hawkish than her top Democratic rivals on foreign policy matters, she has otherwise steered a more traditionally liberal course through the primaries.

It's not that she's against triangulating. It's just that she seems to be triangulating her husband.

-- Peter Baker

By Post Editor  |  November 20, 2007; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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