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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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February 24, 2008 4:54 PM

The Clintons and Obama trade NAFTA charges

Posted by David Postman

(A version of this will appear in the paper tomorrow.)

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio - The North American Free Trade Agreement has gone from a proud achievement of Bill Clinton’s to the source of much of what ails Ohio - a state that will play a central, and perhaps deciding, role in the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

So it was likely no coincidence that the day that ended Sunday with Bill Clinton stumping for his wife, began with Obama trying to paint NAFTA as the product of Team Clinton, Bill and Hillary together.

“NAFTA has destroyed us,” said Michael Van Wagner, a union electrician and
chairman of the Fulton County Democratic Party. He’s neutral in the primary race, but says NAFTA has meant the loss of factory jobs to overseas as well as “the trickle down.”

“I’m a construction worker and I build factories, so we all feel it,” he said.

Bill Clinton spoke in Bowling Green today.

Obama was at the National Gypsum plant in Lorain, near Cleveland, to outline his job creation plan to members of the boilermakers union. In remarks released by his campaign, Obama criticized NAFTA and other international trade deals.

“Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that we can’t stop globalization in its tracks and that some of these jobs aren’t coming back,” Obama said. “But what I refuse to accept is that we have to stand idly by while workers watch their jobs get shipped overseas.”

Obama quoted from past statements Clinton has made supporting NAFTA. And, according to The Associated Press, he told reporters that Clinton should not be able to separate herself from what her husband did as president because she has "essentially presented herself as co-president during the Clinton years.”

The former president spoke about free trade in his remarks at a community center here. But he didn’t make mention of the role he played in designing or promoting NAFTA and he did not address Obama’s comments.

He said his wife “wants to change the terms of trade again, to make it work for all Americans.” He said she’d do that by a three-month moratorium on new trade deals while existing ones are reviewed and amended to include “real labor and environmental standards” for foreign trading partners.

“If people want to do business with us they should not be able to do it by paying slave wages and oppressing their own people,” Clinton told hundreds of people at the Bowling Green Community Center.

Clinton also blamed fallout from trade agreements on lax enforcement by the Bush administration. He said that enforcement actions for violations of trade laws dropped significantly from 1990s to this decade.

He said America can’t enforce trade pacts because “we can’t get tough on our banker.” He said the country can’t crack down on China and other countries because they loan America money.

Clinton told the crowd if they wanted to demonstrate that principle they should go to their local bank and “slap the living daylights out of the bank president. You think you can get a loan tomorrow afternoon? Of course not.”

Clinton remains a big draw in the campaign. People lined up for hours in a frigid, clear day to see him. And his and Hillary Clinton’s fans aren’t bothered by his past work on NAFTA.

“It doesn’t bother me,” said Deborah Monhollen, 52, a former autoworker at Jeep’s Toledo plant. She says the economy is the major issue in Ohio, but that she and other Democrats will strongly support whoever wins the nomination.

“I want Hillary, that’s why I’m here,” she said. “However, all I really want is a Democrat. It has to be better than it has been in the past eight years.”

Obama has been hitting Hillary Clinton hard on NAFTA in recent weeks. He mailed a flyer to Ohio voters that showed a locked factory gate and says Clinton called NAFTA a “boon” to the economy. But that was a paraphrase of comments she made to a reporter and factcheck,org, a non-partisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said Obama should not have made it look like Clinton had said that.

The Clinton campaign touted the fact-checking yesterday. But also said that it found Clinton’s “past position on NAFTA to be ambivalent.”

Both candidates say that they now want to amend NAFTA and other trade agreements to include environmental, labor and other standards.

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