NAFTA squabble in primaries shows the new power of YouTube

Clinton team skillfully used new media to keep the story alive

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, March 5, 2008

It's one of those stories where, quite literally, you need to roll the videotape. More to the point, it's a story that demonstrates the power of new media platforms on the Internet.

In last Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate in Ohio, Hillary Clinton said she would renegotiate NAFTA and even invoke its six-month cancellation clause if Canada and Mexico didn't agree to reopen it. Barack Obama agreed, and even referred to the cancellation clause as "the hammer."

In the U.S. media, it was assumed both candidates were playing to the trade-union vote in a rust-belt state hard hit by industrial layoffs. There was no followup to speak of. But the next night, CTV Washington correspondent Tom Clark filed a piece saying an Obama campaign official "telephoned the ambassador to the United States" to assure him that any rhetoric about NAFTA was just that - rhetoric. "Obama," Clark said in his standup, "promised the voters that he would do what he told the embassy he would not."

And there the story would have sunk without a trace, except that by the next morning it was up on YouTube. And if the Clinton campaign didn't post it, it certainly pounced on it as doublespeak from the candidate who promised to change the ways of Washington.

On his campaign plane that day, Obama did a very dangerous thing - he walked to the back and talked to reporters, denying that anyone spoke to the embassy, or Ambassador Michael Wilson, on his behalf. And that's true - no one did.

Except, as it turned out four days later, one of his economic advisers, Austin Goolsbee of the University of Chicago, had met with Canadian consul-general Georges Rioux in Chicago on Feb. 8 and apparently gave such an assurance. This was reported in a note on Feb. 13 written by a consular official that was widely distributed by email to at least 15 people at the Department of Foreign Affairs. All of those people have forward buttons on their computers, and someone sent it to the Associated Press, whereupon all hell broke loose the day before yesterday's crucial primaries in Ohio and Texas.

It was the fifth consecutive day of incoming for Obama on NAFTA. Going back to last Wednesday, the day after the debate, the Canadian opposition parties asked no questions in the House. But the government responded on its own, sending out Trade Minister David Emerson to note that if the U.S. wanted to reopen NAFTA, Canada would put the energy chapter on the table, the one that gives the U.S. secured access to our oil and gas. Oops.

This did not pass unnoticed by John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, who last Thursday also linked trade to Afghanistan, where he pointed out that Canadians were lending a great hand to the U.S. At a White House news conference that morning, President George W. Bush was also asked about NAFTA.

"The idea of unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of, you know, trying to score political points, is not good policy," Bush said. "It's not good policy on the merits and it's not good policy as a message to send to people who have in good faith signed a treaty and worked with us on a treaty."

The same day, the penny finally dropped in the House of Commons and when asked about re-opening the NAFTA, Stephen Harper said: "If a future president actually did want to open up NAFTA, which I highly doubt, then Canada would obviously have some things we would want to discuss."

At this point, the prime minister was only doing his job, throwing cold water on the suggestion of reopening NAFTA while at the same time defending Canada's vital economic interests.

Flash forward to the Sunday-morning talk shows, and Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who on NBC's Meet the Press tossed off a comment that they've got a "right-wing government in Canada that is trying to help" the Republicans and is "actively interfering in this campaign." For her part, Republican consultant Mary Matalin joined the fray to echo Emerson's remarks on energy.

Shrum's comments got torqued up into a Globe and Mail story about Canada being accused of interfering in the U.S. campaign, with the Conservatives taking sides with the Republicans. Up to that point, it was sheer nonsense.

But then someone at Foreign Affairs leaked a low-level memo, the kind that isn't even classified, to AP. And that can be construed as interfering in the campaign. It gave a dying story new legs, and gave fresh ammunition to the Clinton campaign in two very competitive states it desperately needed to win yesterday.

In question period Monday, Harper, quite elegantly, "regretted the fact that information has come out that would imply that Senator Obama has been saying different things in public than in private. The government of Canada does not condone this and certainly regrets any implication."

Obama can blame Canada. Clinton can thank YouTube.

 
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