Bush Bashes Clinton (and Obama)
Updated 4:45 p.m.
By Peter Baker
President Bush waded further into the presidential race today, slamming Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for "empty, hollow political rhetoric" on trade and warning that they would make "a reckless mistake" by retreating from agreements to lower barriers with other countries.
Although he did not name Clinton or Obama, he left little doubt whom he was talking about, at one point even mocking Clinton's promise to take a "timeout" from free trade agreements if she becomes president. "You know, some have called for a 'timeout' from trade," he told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce shortly after Clinton addressed the group. "I guess that's probably popular with the focus group. You know, they toss out the word 'timeout' from trade -- it's got this kind of catchy little title to it. In the 21st century, a timeout from trade would be a timeout from growth, a timeout from jobs and a timeout from good results."
Bush, who used his speech to push Congress to pass a pending free trade agreement with Colombia, noted pointedly that Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, was a strong supporter of opening markets when he was president and quoted from his predecessor's remarks when signing legislation to implement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) 14 years ago. Hillary Clinton, seconded by Obama, has abandoned NAFTA, saying she would threaten to opt out of the pact if Mexico and Canada did not agree to renegotiate it. "Listen, NAFTA has worked," Bush said. "People shouldn't back away from NAFTA. It's been a positive development for a lot of people."
Congress in December passed a free trade agreement Bush struck with Peru, but his efforts to push three others through before leaving office have stalled. In addition to the Colombia pact, agreements with Panama and South Korea remain in limbo. And the anti-trade talk on the presidential campaign trail complicates chances of pushing any of the three through a Democratic Congress in an election year. Administration officials view the Colombia agreement as the likeliest to pass.
Bush cited the recent crisis in South America when Colombian troops raided Ecuador to kill a top commander of the rebel group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez responded by sending troops to the border with Colombia. The episode, Bush said, showed why the United States needs to stand firmly with Colombia against foes such as Venezuela, a chief adversary of the United States in Latin America.
"If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, we would validate antagonists in Latin America who would say that the America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends," he said. Bush said that Chavez's government "claims to promote social justice. In truth, its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power."
Linking that to domestic politics, Bush lamented what he described as a desire "to wall our nation off" from the world and tried to turn the arguments of Democrats such as Obama and Clinton around on them. "I believe leadership requires people rising above this empty, hollow political rhetoric," he said. "If you're committed to multilateral diplomacy, you cannot support unilateral withdrawal from trade agreements. If you are worried about America's image in the world, it makes no sense to disappoint the nations that are counting on us most."
Clinton fired back later in the day. "We don't need lectures on trade from a president who has turned back the clock on worker and environmental protections, allowed our trade deficit to skyrocket and stood idly by while countries like China unfairly manipulate their currency and dump products like steel on the U.S. market," she said in a statement. "In fact, the reason we so desperately need to take a timeout from new trade agreements is to put a stop to the Bush Administration's reckless and destructive trade policies."
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