Clinton's NAFTA Reversal

On his blog, NewWest populist / John Edwards supporter David Sirota takes Hillary Clinton to the woodshed for allegedly laughing about the consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Clinton's concession last night that NAFTA was a mistake because ""it did not deliver" is said to represent the final length of the 180 degree turn that the Democratic Party has run on trade agreements. She's proposed a "strategic pause" in signing future agreements, has acknowledged the value-negative effect of NAFTA on wages, has catalogued a list of problems with current trade agreements...

But has Clinton really become a fair trader? Or is she modulating her language to adapt to the populist vapors of the Democratic base? A case can be made for the latter -- and in this case, it's instructive to compare the Republican elite's view of immigration to the Democratic elite's view of trade.

Privately, many Republican leaders in Congress and most of the party's presidential candidates favor comprehensive immigration reform. Their base does not, and so they have shifted their rhetoric most abruptly -- Mike Huckabee, not too long ago, attributed much of the anti-reform sentiment to xenophobia. Most of the GOP candidates refuse to even propose a solution to deal with the 13 million or so undocumented workers/illegal immigrants who are here.

In the same vein, Clinton (and Barack Obama) face a reality that the Democratic base lives elsewhere. The rhetoric changes and carrots are offered: Periodically reviewing trade agreements, as Clinton wants to do, isn't the same thing as cancelling them; a temporary pause is not the same thing as a permanent moratorium until labor standards can be brought up to snuff; adding oversight to enforce current law is...adding oversight. Proponents of this view note that she supports expanding NAFTA to include did Obama. At the core of this critique is the idea that Clinton remains a captive of the corporate interests who pushed NAFTA and who have funded the Clinton political machine for decades.

But then again, Clinton has expanded her circle of economic advisers to include opponents of NAFTA. She voted against CAFTA in 2005 -- very much a surprise. She's taken a tough line against Chinese currency manipulation.

This strategic ambiguity may be useful, and it's doubtful that swing voters in 2008 will object to Clinton if she moves a little to the left on trade.

But how should Democratic voters decipher her signals? Should fair-traders trust Clinton? Should free-traders? Will Clinton, as president, defer to Congress?