Hillary Clinton’s Rust Belt Rhetoric

A Clinton victory in Pennsylvania—and maybe in the whole primary race—hinges on the same voters her husband’s free trade policies betrayed.

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If the Ohio Democratic primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was, in part, the Battle of NAFTA, voters in Pennsylvania can expect a rematch as the two candidates head toward the April 22 primary. Like Ohio, Pennsylvania is a beleaguered industrial state that has suffered the damaging fallout of globalization, losing, by one estimate, more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001. “There is no way to avoid this issue in the Pennsylvania primary,” Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, says of NAFTA, “and it will only become a brighter line wedge issue in the general election.”

Consequently, the continued success of Hillary Clinton’s bait-and-switch tactics on the subject of the North American Free Trade Agreement might have a decisive impact on the primary race. In Ohio, she pulled off a remarkable political feat: While her last name alone should have made her vulnerable on free trade, she countered by campaigning against NAFTA. “Let’s get real about NAFTA,” she told a cheering audience in economically devastated Youngstown. “I’m going to fix it.” Then she blasted what she claimed was her opponent’s inconsistent position on NAFTA, a pseudoscandal that her campaign quickly dubbed NAFTA-gate.

Both Clinton and Obama have adjusted their statements on NAFTA to suit their audiences, and it’s not certain that either would do much to change this or other existing free trade agreements. Yet heading into Pennsylvania (and after it, other hard-hit manufacturing states like Indiana and West Virginia), Clinton still seeks to portray herself as a working-class heroine, the candidate who can triumph in the Rust Belt states that may prove crucial in November. By doing so, she surpassed her opponent in the rhetoric/reality gap, betting her presidential fortunes on winning the hearts and minds of the very people her husband’s policies betrayed—on the very issue that epitomized that betrayal.

Hillary Clinton’s own words show clear, long-standing, and largely uncritical support for NAFTA. But beyond this, she has been running hard on her husband’s record, taking a share of the credit for everything good that happened in the 1990s, from the economic recovery to peace in Northern Ireland. Yet she now seeks to disavow what may be the single most significant and emblematic event of Bill Clinton’s presidency. When he signed the agreement in 1994, with a stroke of the pen Bill Clinton abandoned part of the Democratic Party’s core constituency and signed the party on to the neoliberal agenda of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), heralding a new approach to both domestic economic policy and foreign policy. NAFTA, perhaps more than anything else, is Bill Clinton’s legacy.

Hillary Clinton has sought to downplay her husband’s responsibility for NAFTA. In the same Ohio news conference where she declared “Shame on you, Barack Obama” for distributing flyers misrepresenting her NAFTA position, Hillary asserted that “the agreement was negotiated in the Bush administration. It was passed in the Clinton administration.” A year earlier, she told a Time magazine interviewer that “NAFTA was inherited by the Clinton administration,” and that while it was “in principle, a good idea to try to create a better trading market between Canada and the United States and Mexico,” there were problems with “the terms that it contained, and how it was negotiated under the Bush administration and the failure to have any tough enforcement mechanism.” While the basic terms for NAFTA were indeed negotiated under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton was a fervent advocate for the agreement, the man who pushed it through Congress, where the strongest resistance came from his own party. Clinton himself would say, in a 1995 interview with Tom Brokaw, “We took on the NAFTA fight. It was deader than a doornail when I became president, and we brought it back to life.”

After NAFTA was approved, in large part with Republican votes, Clinton declared, “The truth of our age is this and must be this: Open and competitive commerce will enrich us as a nation.” The corporations and well-off Americans who were indeed enriched in the 1990s would find little reason to question such claims. But those left behind by the boom times may have had a better sense of what NAFTA really represented: a fundamental Democratic policy shift toward the long-held Republican position that a rising tide would lift all boats, and that endless growth through a deregulated capitalist economy and expanded markets was the cure for all ills. It was a lot closer to Reaganomics than it was to the New Deal.

By the end of his presidency, Clinton would sign nearly 300 trade agreements. He championed extending Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China—a move that would have a wider economic impact than NAFTA—and presided over American entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which he said, “It creates hundreds of thousands of high-paying American jobs…. It is the largest international tax cut in history. Most importantly, this agreement requires all trading nations to play by the same rules. And since the United States has the most productive and competitive economy in the world, that is good news for our workers and our future.” It wasn’t good news for everyone, but a few million American manufacturing jobs were small matters in the context of the larger vision of which NAFTA was a vital part.

In his book American Empire, Andrew J. Bacevich, the former director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, notes that NAFTA was a cornerstone of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. Clinton was the first president to take office in a post-Cold War world, and his campaign mentioned both the genocide in Bosnia and human rights violations in China as appropriate targets for intervention by the world’s sole superpower; but once in office, he eased off of both positions. As Bacevich points out, NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements were crucial to the administration’s overall international strategy, which Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake (now an Obama advisor), described in a 1993 speech at Johns Hopkins called “From Containment to Enlargement.” Having won the battle against the Soviet Union, the United States would now work for the “enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies” in a global movement toward democracy and market economics—which were seen as inseparable. This strategy, Lake said, would make the world a “more humane and peaceful” place, but it was hardly a humanitarian venture, since it would also make the United States “more secure, prosperous, and influential.” The strategy Lake set out, Bacevich observes, was a plan to “preserve and reinforce American preeminence”—a blueprint for a new kind of American empire.

The author Chalmers Johnson, a longtime critic of the American empire, said in an email exchange that Bill Clinton “conducted an essentially Republican foreign policy.” Clinton “was rapacious toward the third world, particularly Latin America,” he says, “but always under cover of ‘globalization,’ technological factors, the imperatives of neoliberal ideology. He put blatant pressure on Latin American countries to buy American weaponry. He was always dissimulating that ‘the market made me do it.'” Johnson mentions Clinton’s preservation of worldwide military bases, handouts to defense contractors, and failed “structural adjustment” policies in the developing world, concluding that “Clinton ran the prototype of the neocons’ foreign policy but always with the pretense of liberal intent.”

All of this, of course, falls under what some have called triangulation, and what the Clintons and others in the Democratic Leadership Council call the New Democratic Agenda. Hatched in the 1980s, the DLC’s theory was that the party had to move away from the New Deal, economic populism, and what was seen as the excessive influence of its left wing—including organized labor, people of color, feminists, gays and lesbians, and peace activists—and promote “mainstream values, and innovative, non-bureaucratic, market-based solutions.”

At the DLC’s 2002 “National Conversation,” Hillary Clinton said, “We all know the record of the DLC, the Progressive Policy Institute and, of course, the Clinton-Gore administration. The economic recovery plan stands first and foremost as a testament to both good ideas and political courage. National service. The Brady Bill. Family Leave. NAFTA. Investment in science and technology. New markets. Charter schools. The Earned Income Tax Credit. The welfare to work partnership…. All of these came out of some very fundamental ideas about what would work. The results speak for themselves. Those ideas were converted into policies programs that literally changed millions of lives and, I argue, changed America.”

Any notion that Hillary Clinton’s views differ in some profound way from the DLC’s—or from her husband’s—on such a key issue as free trade should be put to rest by her own statements. Hillary’s few public proclamations on NAFTA during her years as first lady are unabashedly positive. At a 1996 meeting with members of the garment workers’ union UNITE, Clinton said, in a clip caught on video, “I think everybody is in favor of free and fair trade. I think NAFTA is proving its worth.” According to an AP report on the candidate’s NAFTA positions, Clinton said the deal “was giving U.S. workers a chance to compete,” declaring, “that’s what a free and fair trade agreement like NAFTA is all about.”

In support of Hillary Clinton’s claim that she actually opposed NAFTA during those early years in the White House are a handful of statements from secondary sources. Biographer Carl Bernstein (on CNN, discussing why John Edwards supporters should switch to Hillary) said, “She was against NAFTA,” and expressed his wish that “she would somehow come out and tell the real story of what she fought for in the White House and failed in a big argument with her husband.” Another biographer, Sally Bedell Smith, also says she “opposed it.” But a primary objection to the trade pact, it appears, was that it would sideline her health care initiative. Smith writes:

It fell to Mickey Kantor, the U.S. Trade Representative…to reason with Hillary. One day in August, he sat her down on a bench behind the White House and tried to strike a compromise. “I said, ‘If you want to drop NAFTA, we can kill it, but we shouldn’t,'” Kantor recalled. “I said, ‘The way to do it is to introduce health care, spend a month on it, and then do NAFTA, then go back to health care.'” With misgivings, Hillary acquiesced to the proposed sequence.

According to then-labor secretary Robert Reich, Hillary’s objections were all about sequence. Reich, who claims to “remember her position quite precisely,” says on his blog:

HRC didn’t want the Administration to move forward with NAFTA, but not because she was opposed to NAFTA as a policy. She opposed NAFTA because of its timing. She wanted her health-care plan to be voted on first. She feared that the fight over NAFTA would use up so much of the White House’s political capital that there wouldn’t be enough left when it came to pushing for health care.

In her own 2003 memoir, Living History, Hillary writes that she simply didn’t want her health care plan delayed for the sake of NAFTA, but voices no objections to the trade agreement itself: “Creating a free trade zone in North America—the largest free trade zone in the world—would expand U.S. exports, create jobs and ensure that our economy was reaping the benefits, not the burdens, of globalization. Although unpopular with labor unions, expanding trade opportunities was an important administration goal. The question was whether the White House could focus its energies on two legislative campaigns at once. I argued that we could and that postponing health care would further weaken its chances.”

Hillary Clinton may now pledge to “fix” NAFTA by making some adjustments around the edges, renegotiating terms, and improving enforcement. But her husband made similar promises in order to get the agreement passed. Reports from Public Citizen to the Wall Street Journal have documented the fact that those environmental and labor protections never had much impact due to both inherent weaknesses and a lack of enforcement under Bill Clinton as well as under George W. Bush.

Hillary promises to do better, and perhaps she will. But unless she separates herself from the DLC—where she is currently identified as one of seven members of the “leadership team”—it’s impossible to imagine her doing more than some harmless tinkering. And at this point, 14 years after the first Clinton opened the door to the bracing wind of free trade, it will take a lot more than that to help people in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, or, as the popular slogan goes, to make free trade into fair trade.

Global Trade Watch’s Lori Wallach says that “most Americans still have no idea how NAFTA and the WTO hijacked the good name of trade to lavish market-distorting protections and subsidies on the corporations that helped write those deals and to impose limits on import safety standards and inspection.” The United States is subject to WTO rules, which supercede U.S. law, and the corporate interests they serve are funding the presidential campaigns. So any candidate who proposes to address the ravages of globalization had better be serious about it. Barack Obama, who remains basically a business-friendly centrist despite being free of DLC ties, is unlikely to have the will to do what it would take. Hillary Clinton, who for all her populist rhetoric has New Democratic blood coursing through her veins, certainly doesn’t. Anyone hoping for relief, then, had best take Hillary’s own advice: Let’s get real about NAFTA.


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