Presidential Candidates on Trade
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There is little difference between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and
Barack Obama on international trade issues, although neither has provided much detail and both have shown
some ambivalence in their views.
Both candidates have said that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is "flawed" and
that it "lacks labor standards and environmental standards" and that it has hurt the United
States. Obama states that the agreement has "helped Wall Street but hurt Main Street" and Clinton
asserts that we need to do more to "protect our workers."
Both candidates believe NAFTA should be renegotiated, in Clinton’s words "on terms favorable
to all of America." The candidates cite the negative impact of NAFTA on labor and believe that the
agreement must be amended to discourage factory closures and include more retraining and transition programs.
The senators often cite the thousands of jobs that have been lost in the United States due to NAFTA,
especially when campaigning in the states that have been hardest hit by the agreement, notably Ohio and
Differences arise in the analysis of past positions. Obama faults Clinton for her past position in
support of NAFTA and favorable evaluation of the agreement. Clinton now states that NAFTA has "winners
and losers" and has called for a "time-out" on new free trade agreements (FTAs). Obama
states he has always opposed NAFTA. However, both candidates came out in favor of the U.S.-Peru Free
Trade Agreement, although neither cast a vote in the Senate at the December vote.
Although both occasionally mention the relationship between free trade policies and expulsion of migrants,
neither has drawn a direct policy connection. Overall, the debate has been limited, with few details
or commitments. There have been few statements on the effects of free trade agreements on developing
countries like Mexico and Central America.
Republican John McCain is pro-free trade. McCain has had to strike a careful balance between calls
for a totally "free-market" and acknowledgement of the loss of jobs in the United States connected
to free trade agreements. He has taken the stance that free trade is more helpful than harmful and that
any harm that has resulted is due to distortions caused by protectionism rather than the FTAs. It is
important to note, however, that McCain takes a hard stance against protectionism. McCain voted for CAFTA
and NAFTA and makes it clear that he supports both. Interestingly, McCain is against the inclusion (in
trade agreements) of any provisions that "address environmental concerns and protect workers’ rights."
McCain’s central argument is that free trade is the goal, it’s working well, and we just need to work
toward making it "freer."
The following are the candidates’ positions on (1) their assessment of NAFTA, (2) renegotiation of
NAFTA, (3) pending Free Trade Agreements, (4) future Free Trade Agreements, and (5) labor and environmental
Hillary Clinton on Trade
- Assessment of NAFTA:
- "I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning. I didn’t have a public position on it,
because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic.
I’ve said it was flawed. I said that it worked in some parts of our country, and I’ve seen the results
in Texas. I was in Laredo in the last couple of days. It’s the largest inland port in America now. So
clearly, some parts of our country have been benefited.
- But what I have seen, where I represent upstate New York, I’ve seen the factories close and move.
I’ve talked to so many people whose children have left because they don’t have a good shot.
- I’ve had to negotiate to try to keep factories open—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—because
the companies got tax benefits to actually move to another country.
- So what I have said is that we need to have a plan to fix NAFTA … (quoted below).
- We will do everything we can to make it enforceable, which it is not now." (Democratic Debate
Feb. 26, transcript at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23394129/)
- Voted YES on establishing free trade between the United States and Chile, Singapore, and Oman.
- Voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
- "I have said that I will renegotiate NAFTA, so obviously, you’d have to say to Canada and Mexico
that that’s exactly what we’re going to do."
- "I will say we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate on terms that
are favorable to all of America."
- "We need to have a plan to fix NAFTA. I would immediately have a trade timeout, and I would take
that time to try to fix NAFTA by making it clear that we’ll have core labor and environmental standards
in the agreement." (The agreement currently includes "side agreements" on environment
and labor that do not form part of the core text: ed.)
- "I believe that all trade agreements must have strong labor and environmental provisions. That
is why, as president, I will thoroughly review NAFTA and make necessary changes." Committed to renegotiate
CAFTA and NAFTA during her first term in office. (Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition Questionnaire Feb. 2008)
- Senator Clinton has come out against approval of the Colombia, Panama, and South Korean Free Trade
- Clinton calls for a timeout on future agreements until studies have assessed the impact and modifications
have been made in the model.
- "I have actually voted to toughen trade agreements, to try to put more teeth into our enforcement
mechanisms. And I will continue to do so."
- "Every trade agreement must have strong and enforcement (sic) labor and environmental provisions
and those provisions should be subject to the same enforcement mechanisms as the commercial provisions." (Wisconsin
Fair Trade Coalition)
- Answered yes to question "Will your administration ensure future trade agreements do not include
private investor-state enforcement systems and also ensure that state-state investment rules do not grant
foreign investors and overseas companies greater rights than U.S. residents or businesses?" (Wisconsin
Fair Trade Coalition)
- "We will do everything we can to make it enforceable, which it is not now. We will stop the kind
of constant sniping at our protections for our workers that can come from foreign companies because they
have the authority to try to sue to overturn what we do to keep our workers safe."
- "We will opt out [of NAFTA] unless we renegotiate the core labor and environmental standards"
Barack Obama on Trade
- Assessment of NAFTA:
- "If we cannot have stronger labor standards, environmental standards, and safety standards, then
my job as president will be to look at what effect this has on the economy overall. Let me give you a
very specific example. It is true that some of the border communities along Mexico and Texas have benefited
from NAFTA. What is also true is that there are enormous numbers of Mexican agricultural workers and
farmers who’ve been displaced, and part of the reason that we’ve seen such a problem with immigration
over recent years is the grinding poverty that exists in Mexico.
- And so I can’t look just anecdotally at where it has helped, I want to look at overall, can we improve
this so that it’s good not only for workers in Ohio and workers in Texas, but also good for workers in
Mexico who right now can’t support themselves and ending up coming here and potentially depressing U.S.
jobs as well."
- "I voted against CAFTA and never supported NAFTA."
- Voted YES on free trade agreement with Oman.
- "NAFTA’s shortcomings were evident when signed and we must now amend the agreement to fix them."
- "We must add binding obligations to the NAFTA agreement to protect the right to collective bargaining
and other core labor standards recognized by the International Labor Organization. Similarly we must
add binding environmental standards so that companies from one country cannot gain an economic advantage
by destroying the environment. And we should amend NAFTA to make clear that fair laws and regulations
written to protect citizens in any of the three countries cannot be overridden simply at the request
of foreign investors."
- "There’s no doubt that NAFTA needs to be amended. I’ve already said I would contact the president
of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada to make sure that labor agreements are enforceable. But I
did want to just go back briefly to the issue of trade and human rights that you had mentioned. We have
to stand for human rights, and that should be part of the trade equation."
- "I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada to try to amend NAFTA
because I think that we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now. And it should reflect the
basic principle that our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, it should also be
good for Main Street."
- South Korea: (opposed) "While the agreement would lead to a significant increase in wealth for
banks, telecommunications firms, and some in corporate agriculture, it fails to ensure that all U.S.
products—especially our cars and trucks, but our rice and beef producers as well—receive fair treatment
in that market. Our employers and workers can compete against employers and workers everywhere in the
world, but they should not be exposed to competition against governments systematically discriminating
against our products."
- Opposes the Panama FTA until the situation regarding Miguel Gonzalez Pinzon is resolved and only then
if "it does not bear the flaws of other NAFTA-style agreements."
- "We do export a lot of agricultural goods, many of that through trade agreements. And I think
we’ve got to do three things: We have to have more focus on family farms. We’ve got to do more to make
sure trade agreements are not only good for the exporting of agricultural products from great big agribusiness,
but also for small farmers.
- "… trade needs to become a win-win. People ask me, am I a free trader or a fair trader? I want
to be a smart, pro-American trader. And that means we look for ways to maximize the impact of what we’re
trying to export and quit being taken advantage of by other countries."
- "Strong, enforceable labor and environmental provisions must be part of the core text of every
trade agreement. If they are not, our workers will have to compete on an unfair playing field. That is
- "And as president of the United States, I intend to make certain that every agreement that we
sign has the labor standards, the environmental standards, and the safety standards that are going to
protect not just workers, but also consumers. We can’t have toys with lead paint in them that our children
are playing with. We can’t have medicines that are actually making people more sick instead of better
because they’re produced overseas."
- "In a February 2008 speech at the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, Obama said he "will
not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American
- "We’ll add binding obligations to protect the right to collective bargaining and other core labor
standards recognized by the International Labor Organization. And I will add enforceable standards to
NAFTA, the World Trade Organization (WTO), CAFTA, and other Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) currently in
- "We should add binding environmental standards so that companies from one country cannot gain
an economic advantage by destroying the environment."
John McCain on Trade
- Assessment of NAFTA:
- "NAFTA has had unambiguously positive impact on the United States. While the effects of the NAFTA
are being closely monitored by supporters and critics of that pact alike, it has become clear that NAFTA
represents an important component of our international economic policy, contributing to the creation
of 300,000 new American jobs since its passage. It will likely be several more years before its full
impact can be determined. The results from the first five years, however, unambiguously demonstrate that
the agreement has a net positive impact on the U.S. economy."
- None, fully supports NAFTA.
- Supports all pending FTAs.
- "I’m a student of history. Every time the United States has become protectionist and listened
to the siren song that you’re hearing partially on this stage tonight, we’ve paid a very heavy price.
The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Acts in the 1930s were direct contributors to World War II. It sounds like a
lot of fun to bash China and others, but free trade has been the engine of our economy. Free trade should
be the continuing principle that guides this nation’s economy."
- Voting Record
- Pro-NAFTA, pro-GATT, pro-MFN, pro-Fast Track.
- Voted YES on free trade agreement with Oman, CAFTA, Singapore, Chile, Andean Community, Vietnam, and
for permanent normal trade relations with China.
- Against U.S. farm subsidies
- "We should make sure that every nation respects human rights, and we should advocate that and
try to enforce it. I will open every market in the world to Iowa’s agricultural products, and eliminate
subsidies on ethanol and other agricultural products. Subsidies are a mistake, and I don’t believe that
anybody can say that they’re a fiscal conservative and yet support subsidies which distort markets and
destroy our ability to compete in the world, as well as our ability to get cheaper products into the
- Believes that there should be NO environmental provisions in trade agreements.
- Q: Should trade agreements include provisions to address environmental concerns and to protect workers’
rights? A: No.
- Free trade with any country except security risks
- "I don’t believe in walls. I believe in freedom. If I were president, I would negotiate a free
trade agreement with almost any country willing to negotiate fairly with us. Only risks to the security
of our vital interests or egregious offenses to our most cherished political values should disqualify
a nation from entering into a free trade agreement with us."