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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/11/2007

Most Revealing Fibs: John Edwards

By Michael Dobbs

Campaigning in New Hampshire, Dec. 7, 2007.

"America's trade policy has been a complete disaster...We got something America did not need, which is NAFTA, which has cost us millions of jobs."
--John Edwards, Democratic Debate on CNN, Nov. 15, 2007.

John Edwards has embraced economic populism as the central plank of his electoral platorm. In the world according to Edwards, honest, hard-working Americans are for ever being exploited by shadowy lobbying groups and powerful vested interests. It is a black-and-white world in which there is not much room for nuance. The former senator for North Carolina and Democratic vice-presidential candidate sometimes gets so carried away by his rhetoric that he makes mistakes.

An obvious example is his rhetoric on trade. In the Senate, Edwards voted in favor of several trade agreements, including a normalization of trade with China. On the campaign trail, he has slammed the North American Free Trade Agreement as a "failed trade policy that has put "the interests of multinational corporations ahead of the needs of working families." But the statistics he uses to support his argument are highly questionable.

Asked for supporting evidence for the "millions" of lost jobs claim, Edwards campaign spokesman Eric Schultz cited a 2006 study by a leading NAFTA sceptic, Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute. But Scott's research does not support the "millions" claim. It does not even support the more modest claim (sometimes made by Edwards) of a loss of "one million jobs." The key line from the EPI analysis is as follows: "Growing trade deficits with Mexico and Canada have displaced production that supported roughly 660,000 (manufacturing only) and 1.0 million (total) U.S. jobs since the agreement took effect in 1994."

Note the word "displaced." Only one third of these jobs were "lost" for good, according to Scott. In the remaining cases, workers found other jobs. Scott says that a majority of these new jobs paid less than the original jobs--but that is a separate debate.

Several other academic studies have been done on the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada on employment. A 2004 report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service concluded that NAFTA "had little or no impact on aggregate employment." A 2004 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that a total of 525,000 American workers had been certified by the Department of Labor as losing employment due to NAFTA. It was unable to determine how many of these workers found other jobs.

The basic problem in this discussion is that proponents of NAFTA talk only in terms of jobs created," said Sandra Polaski, one of the authors of the Carnegie study. "Opponents talk in terms of jobs destroyed. But there are always pluses and minuses with trade."

  • A couple of other cases where Edwards has been guilty of rhetorical excesses: "Pretty soon there's not going to be a young African-American male population in America."

  • The claim that he is the "most electable" Democratic candidate.

  • The claim that, as president, he will deprive members of Congress of their health care plans unless they vote for universal health care.

  • The Pinocchio Test

    It is still too early to rank the candidates in terms of their overall truthfulness. I have handed out Pinocchios to all the candidates for individual statements that seem at variance with the facts, but will give them a pass this week. Send me any other examples of fibs or exaggerations by Edwards.

    By Michael Dobbs  | December 11, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
    Categories:  Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, Economy, Other Foreign Policy  
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    Next: Most Revealing Fibs: Fred Thompson

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