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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley April 21, 2008

A distinction without a difference

In an attempt to draw distinctions where there are, in fact, very few, the Obama campaign sent around a mailer in Pennsylvania last week attacking Sen. Hillary Clinton on foreign trade.

Over a picture of people standing in an unemployment line is this headline: "Here's the Truth: Hillary Clinton supported NAFTA and permanent China trade. Pennsylvania lost thousands of jobs."

PolitiFact has addressed the NAFTA issue before, concluding that in the past, Clinton has, indeed, energetically promoted NAFTA, while noting that more work needed to be done.

In June 2007, she said NAFTA had some positive effects "but unfortunately it had a lot of downside." And at a debate in December 2007, she announced her intention to review and reform NAFTA if she were elected.

The other claim in Obama's political ad about Clinton's support for permanent China trade relates to a bill that passed Congress in 2000 to enter the United States into a Permanent Normalized Trade agreement with China.

Clinton was campaigning for the U.S. Senate when the bill passed (just seven Democrats opposed), and Clinton was asked at a CNN-sponsored forum in April 2000 what she thought about it, in light of China's history on human rights.

Said Clinton: "I share the concerns that many of my supporters in organized labor have expressed to me, because I do think we have to make sure that we improve labor rights, we improve environmental standards in our bilateral and our multilateral trade agreements.

"But on balance, I've looked at this, I've studied it, I think it is in the interests of America and American workers that we provide the option for China to go into the WTO (World Trade Organization). Right now, we are trading with China. We have a huge trade deficit with China. The agreement that has been negotiated between our two countries would open their markets to us in a way that they are not yet open, and in fact, for many large manufactured products, like automobiles, we would have the first chance to really get in and compete in that marketplace."

Obama says he would have opposed the legislation.

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In a forum sponsored by the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) on April 15, 2008, Obama said the Permanent Normalized Trade agreement with China "didn't do enough to ensure fairness and compliance."

"Now, you can have a debate about whether my position is right or wrong," Obama said. "But here's what you can't do. You can't spend the better part of two decades campaigning for NAFTA and PNTR for China, and then come here to Pennsylvania, and tell the steelworkers you've been with them all along."

But when Clinton and Obama addressed the AAM, separately, on April 15, 2008, their stated positions on foreign trade were "virtually identical," said AAM director Scott Paul.

Both pledged to step up enforcement of current trade laws. Both promised to crack down on China's practice of manipulating its currency to give its products an unfair advantage. Both said they opposed the Chinese government subsidizing industry to the detriment of U.S. competitors.

"China must stop manipulating its currency because it's not fair to American manufacturers, it's not fair to you, and we are going to change it when I am president," Obama said.

Said Clinton: "I'm calling for changing our laws to send China a message. If you subsidize your exports and hurt our manufacturers, you'll pay a price."

Which led Paul to conclude: "There is not a lot of policy difference moving forward."

The debate comes amid a campaign initiated by AAM called "China Cheats. Pennsylvania Loses." Alliance for American Manufacturing, a nonpartisan business-labor alliance, commissioned a study by the Economic Policy Institute that concluded that trade deficits with China have cost the United States 1.8-million jobs since 2001 (78,200 in Pennsylvania). Another study by EPI concluded Pennsylvania lost another 44,173 jobs between 1993 and 2004 due to NAFTA.

But while the Obama campaign mailer tries to make it seem as though the two Democratic candidates are far apart on trade issues, in substance they are not. It is true that Clinton has in the past verbally supported NAFTA and permanent trade with China. Yet it is also true that she has spoken forcefully about the need to reform NAFTA and to much more stringently enforce trade agreements with China. So we rate the claims in the mailer to be Half True.

Our Sources

Economic Policy Institute, "Costly Trade With China," by Robert E. Scott, Oct. 9, 2007

Washinton Post-ABC News Poll, April 10-13, 2008

Obama campaign Web site, "Obama Addresses the Alliance for American Manufacturing," by Sam Graham-Felsen, April 14, 2008

Alliance for American Manufacturing, "Obama, Clinton Vow to 'Get Tough with China' and Enforce Trade Laws at Manufacturing Forum," April 15, 2008

The Huffington Post, "Obama Going Negative? Mailer Hits Clinton On Trade," by Sam Stein, April 17, 2008

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Forged in steel U.S. losses Vanished jobs are key issue in Pennsylvania. Ill-gotten gains? Steelworkers here cite Chinese trade practices" by Bill Lambrecht, April 20, 2008

Interview with Scott Paul, director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, April 21, 2008

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