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Edwards and Kerry split hairs on trade


NEEDING A PEG on which to hang one whopper of an issue -- trade and jobs -- John Edwards cites John Kerry's vote 11 years ago to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. Edwards is wrong.


Needing to defuse the impact of a clearly resonating topic -- again, trade and jobs -- Kerry is denying the existence of a serious disagreement with Edwards and by implication denying the importance of the issue in the remaining primaries.

Kerry is wrong. The clue to the real meaning of this topic, ironically, is the one major issue that has come before the Senate on which Edwards and Kerry agree -- the decision four years ago to admit China to the World Trade Organization with the same trading privileges the United States extends to every other member in good standing.

Edwards and Kerry were right to support it. The other clue is the fact that President Bush doesn't have a clue. His failed policies worship economic forces with ideological fervor and practical incompetence, they facilitate the movement of jobs abroad, and they shortchange the 24/7 job of guiding America's adjustment to global trends.

Edwards is wrong about NAFTA. Before the treaty was negotiated by Bush's dad and then improved by Bill Clinton so it could get ratified, there was nothing to prevent a "Benedict Arnold" firm (Kerry's phrase) from running away in furtherance of dirt-cheap workers, child labor, authoritarian repression of labor and human rights, permissive rules on fouling the environment and tax avoidance. There was nothing to directly prevent such behavior after the treaty was ratified, either.

What NAFTA did primarily was knock down trade barriers among the three nations and increase the level of imports and exports. Indeed, before NAFTA, barriers to US goods entering Mexico were a factor in the decisions of many companies to head south. The reason you didn't hear much about the treaty after it took effect in the mid-1990s was that the US economy was expanding at such a healthy clip. To cite NAFTA now, after general hard times, is scapegoating.

The fact is NAFTA needs improvement, even in the view of the people who negotiated it. But making improvements to a dated document is a far cry from using it as a straw man when the problems America faces have almost nothing to do with it.

Kerry's approach is similarly misguided, in part because the two men do differ on a couple of revealing points. They border on the boring, but they're revealing. Kerry, for example, has an unbroken record of support for trade agreements in the last decade when the Clinton administration was negotiating them by the dozens, regardless of how carefully they incorporated provisions blocking trading partners from using low labor and environmental standards as de facto competitive advantages.

Edwards, by contrast, tends to vote no unless those provisions are especially clear and tough. He voted yes on just such a deal with Jordan, but otherwise has tended to vote no. Kerry claims to be a convert, but Edwards was there first.

Secondly, it is true that they both supported the deal with China; as with NAFTA, the result has been far more exports to the vast Chinese market, as well as the country's agreement to live within an international system that has rules. However, Edwards is far tougher on Chinese behavior since the deal was approved -- including manipulation of exchange rates for trading benefit, dumping of Chinese exports on open market countries, and intellectual piracy. For example, he would threaten a continuation of textile quotas until US grievances are satisfied.

Finally, Edwards and Kerry differ on the important topic of emphasis, which among other things is a clue to how likely a future president is to follow through on campaign statements. It was Edwards, just before the seven primaries and caucuses on Feb. 7, who first raised the issue in the aftermath of Dick Gephardt's withdrawal from the race. It is Edwards who has emphasized it ever since. Kerry would be wise to do the same instead of waste breath denigrating Edwards's seriousness.

This matter of emphasis also colors judgments about the future-oriented positions on which the two largely agree -- reexamining all existing treaties, changing US tax laws that make moving abroad less costly and could make staying here more attractive, cutting business costs for health insurance, and improving technical education in this country.

Neither Kerry nor Edwards is a protectionist. Each is light years ahead of Bush in his thinking about how the country can prosper in a newly hot-wired globe. Each also understands that lasting support for open markets demands enforcement of violated rules and generous help to Americans hurt by global forces for which they are not responsible.

Edward deserves credit for putting this issue more forcefully on the table. He should, however, ditch the NAFTA stuff. The problem isn't the treaty; it's today's realities.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is

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