There was no ambiguity in last night's Democratic debate when it came to NAFTA. Both candidates plainly said that they were willing to dump the trade treaty absent a renegotiation. "I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning," Senator Hillary Clinton began, notwithstanding, apparently, frequent comments to the contrary. She went on to suggest a "trade timeout": "I have put forward a very specific plan about what I would do, and it does include telling Canada and Mexico that we will opt out unless we renegotiate the core labor and environmental standards -- not side agreements, but core agreements; that we will enhance the enforcement mechanism'¦" Obama backed her up.
This did not mean, however, that either candidate actually expects to confront that decision. When Moderator Tim Russert pressed her ("Absent the change that you're suggesting, you are willing to opt out of NAFTA in six months?"), Senator Clinton responded, "I'm confident that as president, when I say we will opt out unless we renegotiate, we will be able to renegotiate." (The New York Times has a nifty interactive debate feature that allows you to go to a discussion of a specific issue and simultaneously watch the exchange and read the transcript.)
Of course, to do that, either would-be president would have to overcome stiff resistance in Congress'¦from Democrats. (Including former Clinton aide Rahm Emmanuel.) As the Agenda has noted before, when it comes to trade, Democrats have a habit of talking one way and voting another. Indeed, National Public Radio's trade correspondent, Adam Davidson, helpfully points out that while Clinton and Obama "didn't vote on NAFTA when it passed," since neither was in the Senate back in 1994 (Obama was just 13 years old!*), "they have both voted in favor of most free trade deals when they have had a chance."
Davidson's comment comes at the end of a useful deconstruction of NAFTA's place in the Ohio primary campaign. Turns out the economists Davidson interviewed, including the lefty, NAFTA-hating one, don't credit NAFTA as the source of Ohio's woes. (In the debate, Russert noted that Ohio ranks fourth among states in exports to Canada and Mexico.) Rather, they blame the ineptitude of the big flailing automakers and trade with -- wait for it — China. So why, then, is NAFTA so despised? According to an AFL-CIO official in Ohio, it's because the unions made NAFTA their last stand. "Workers know about NAFTA," she said, "because we did a lot of education around the impact of NAFTA and what it would do when it was passing through legislation, back in the '90s."
UPDATE, 4:24 PM ET: New York Times columnist David Leonhardt shrewdly compares the Democrats' two-facedness on trade to the Republican position on abortion. (Though the analogy really only holds up when you're talking about the national GOP, not the state parties.) The economists Leonhardt interviewed say that the best way help Ohio is with "more government investment in infrastructure, the medical sciences, alternative energy and other areas that could produce good new jobs," as well as a more progressive tax code that cuts taxes for workers. As Leonhardt points out, both Democrats support such policies.