Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Marital Discord

Bill Clinton was the ultimate free trader. But Hillary, tacking left, is sounding protectionist notes. Can Bill win this argument?


Illustration by Darrow  

The Clinton dyad made its campaign-trail debut last week in Iowa, with the second leg of the traveling show scheduled for this week in New Hampshire. As tends to be the case with matters Clinton, the reviews so far have been mixed: Bill has overshadowed Hillary; no, he has let her shine; no, he has looked “downright bored” (per Newsweek) as he absorbs her numbing stump speech. And yet the rolling Clinton psychodrama has produced at least one riff that seems likely to have legs. “I know some people sort of say, ‘Well, you know, look at them, they’re old. They’re sort of yesterday’s news,’ ” Bill intoned at the University of Iowa, jabbing pointedly at Barack Obama’s trademark call for generational change. “Well, yesterday’s news was pretty good, that’s the first thing I want to say!”

As Clinton proceeded to rattle off a selective litany of that news, much of it turned out to be of the economic variety. Of course. In many areas, after all, from foreign policy to personal comportment, Clinton’s record looks from the vantage of today the same as it did at the time: mixed. But when it comes to Clintonomics, the benefit of hindsight has only burnished the administration’s achievements: the job creation, the robust growth, the fiscal surplus, the wage and productivity increases, the general-purpose prosperity. Certainly, there isn’t a plausible Democratic presidential candidate who isn’t trafficking, at least implicitly, in nostalgia for the Clinton boom.

Here’s the curious thing, however. One of the central tenets of Clintonomics was its embrace of globalization; indeed, a convincing argument can be made that Clinton did as much to advance the cause of free trade as any president of either party in the past 50 years. Yet as far as I can see, none of the top-tier Democratic runners has come close to offering a full-throated endorsement of this aspect of Clintonism. And although that may come as no surprise with regard to Obama or John Edwards, the distance between Hillary and her husband on the topic is both noteworthy and telling—not just about the brass-tacks electoral calculations behind her policy positions, but about the shifts now under way in Democratic economic orthodoxy.

Just how far apart are Mr. and Mrs. Clinton on the question of global economic integration? The gap is yawning. For the former president, three sweeping and historic trade agreements did much to cement his reputation as bone-deep internationalist: the passage of NAFTA, the ratification of the Uruguay Round of the gatt, and the extension of permanent normal trading status to China and its inclusion in the WTO.

But for the current senator, much of this apparently seems dubious, at least as a road map to the future. “We just can’t keep doing what we did in the twentieth century,” she told a reporter from Bloomberg, adding that we may need “a little time-out” before the enactment of any further trade deals. Accordingly, in 2005, she voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Last month, she announced her opposition to the South Korean Free Trade Agreement. She has backed legislation that would impose trade sanctions on Chinese goods unless Beijing stops holding down the value of the yuan. She has even repeatedly spouted skepticism about the wisdom of NAFTA—while stopping short of blaming her husband for its deficiencies. “NAFTA was inherited by the Clinton administration,” she informed Time magazine. “I believe in the general principles it represented, but what we have learned is that we have to drive a tougher bargain.”

It’s tempting to mock this last point as a nakedly disingenuous reading of history, but … no, actually, it’s irresistible. Though Clinton did, in fact, inherit NAFTA from the Bush 41 régime, he campaigned for its passage as if his life depended on it, taking on the out-front protectionist bloc in the Democratic party at a time when his standing was far from solid—an act of considerable political courage and even greater political skill. After pushing through the deal, Clinton described it as representing a seminal decision by the country not to retreat from a world in which “change is the only constant.”

The pace of change being driven by globalization has only accelerated in the fourteen years since NAFTA’s passage. And the political backlash against that change has only grown more bellicose, potent, and mainstream. In 2006, a raft of Democratic Senate candidates—Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Virginia’s Jim Webb, Montana’s Jon Tester—were elected in part because of their appeals to economic nationalism and their opposition to trade deals that reputedly sent countless jobs overseas. And the anti-globalization tenor of many House Democratic campaigns was even more pronounced. “In all my time in Washington,” says Rob Shapiro, chairman of the New Democrat Network Globalization Initiative and a key adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “I’ve never seen less support for open trade across this town than today.”


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift