When Canada gets involved in American elections

At last Tuesday's debate, Tim Russert grilled Hillary Clinton on NAFTA, confronting her with positive comments she had uttered over the past few years. At the time, Barack Obama was campaigning hard on the issue as well, impugning Clinton's credibility on trade and suggesting that she couldn't just cherry pick the parts of her husband's record that pleased her.

Now barely a week has passed and it is Obama who is in difficulty on NAFTA. This surprising turn-around will be one of the primary explanations we will have to offer if Clinton gets a comfortable (double-digit?) win here tomorrow. NAFTA, after all, is one of the most burning issues in Ohio, particularly among the very courted blue-collar voters.

This latest episode started when Canadian authorities suggested that one of Obama's top advisers -- Austan Goolsbee -- had contacted them to tell them to not worry about Obama turning up the volume against NAFTA, and that these public pronouncements did not correspond to his governing intentions. The Obama campaign immediately fought back against these reports and denied any contact with Canadian authorities, and the issue appeared ready to die down when the AP uncovered a Canadian memo that recounted a meeting on February 8th between Goolsbee and the Canadian Consulate in Chicago. The memo (that was circulated within the Canadian government) claims that Goolsbee had talked about Obama's "political positioning" on NAFTA.

The memo did change one thing in Obama's defense: the campaign is now arguing that Goolsbee never said such things -- but the existence of a meeting is now being acknowledged. From Obama's conference call with reporters this morning:

The Canadian Consulate in Chicago contacted one of my advisers, Austan Goolsbee, on their own initiative, invited them down to meet with them. He met with them as a courtesy. At some point they started talking about trade and NAFTA and the Canadian Embassy confirmed that he said exactly what I have been saying on the campaign trail.

This controversy has led to an international incident, with fights erupting in the Canadian Parliament as the opposition asked for the firing of some of the Prime Minister's aides for interfering in US elections (video is visible here). The Canadian Embassy also released a statement trying to calm the controversy:

In the recent report produced by the Consulate General in Chicago, there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect. The people of the United States are in the process of choosing a new President and are fortunate to have strong and impressive candidates from both political parties. Canada will not interfere in this electoral process.

It is difficult to ascertain the merits of the arguments here, but I would dare say that it is unlikely that Goolsbee would have said anything this blunt on February 8th. However, it also appears certain that both Clinton and Obama are posturing on NAFTA and that both have had a much more favorable position on trade than they have been campaigning on over the past two weeks. Ultimately, how easily the spotlight shifted from Clinton to Obama on NAFTA is a testament to how similar the two candidates' trade positions are and how NAFTA was suddenly pushed at the forefront the way candidates talk about ethanol in Iowa.

In any case, this is clearly not the type of story Obama wanted Ohio voters to hear in the run-up to March 4th, and whatever success Obama had met in his efforts to paint Clinton as an advocate of NAFTA was probably undermined by the coverage this Canada issue is getting in Ohio.



  • The Conservative Government of Canada leaked the memo to embarrass the Obama camp not thinking it would come back to bite them.
    Unfortunatly for us (I'm a Canadian); he is now pissed and if he wins in November Canada will not be in his good books.
    For an excellent account of what really happened; check out Neil MacDonalds report on the CBC's Politics show podcast for March

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 03 March, 2008 20:03  

  • Invade!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 04 March, 2008 11:18  

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