Last February, Barack Obama spoke out against NAFTA, saying he would tell Canada and Mexico “that we will opt out unless we renegotiate the core labour and environmental standards.” However, Canadian television reported that a “top staff member” of the Obama campaign reassured the Canadian government that this was only (in CTV’s words) “campaign rhetoric, and should not be taken at face value.” The Obama campaign furiously denied the story, at times denying even that a meeting took place. (Obama put it plainly, “It did not happen.”) But then CTV named the representative, Austan Goolsbee, and the AP obtained an official memo regarding the meeting:
According to the writer of the memorandum, Joseph De Mora, a political and economic affairs consular officer, Professor Goolsbee assured them that Mr. Obama’s protectionist stand on the trail was “more reflective of political maneuvering than policy.”
Then unable to deny the meeting, the Obama campaign changed its tack, denying only the substance of the report, and claiming never to have denied the actual meeting:
In an interview with the AP, Goolsbee disputed a portion of the memo that quotes him as saying that campaign rhetoric “that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy.”
“That’s this guy’s language,” Goolsbee said of the memo’s author, Joseph De Mora. “He’s not quoting me.” . . .
Burton stood by the campaign’s handling of the story, saying the denials were in response to the “substance of the matter at hand” about whether someone representing Obama was consistent about his position on trade.
“At no point did we deny there was a meeting,” Burton said Monday, hours after Sen. Dick Durbin, a top Obama surrogate, denied the meeting on MSNBC. “We made it crystal clear to anyone who was covering it.”
That’s where the Obama campaign left it: he really would opt out of the treaty and his supposed reassurances to Canada were a misunderstanding.
Until now. With the Democratic nomination locked up, it’s time to roll back the protectionist rhetoric:
In an interview with Fortune to be featured in the magazine’s upcoming issue, the presumptive Democratic nominee backed off his harshest attacks on the free trade agreement and indicated he didn’t want to unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA.
“Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified,” he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake,” despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the U.S. economy.
Does that mean his rhetoric was overheated and amplified? “Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don’t exempt myself,” he answered.
In other words, Obama’s opt-out position on NAFTA was (as CTV put it from the start) “campaign rhetoric, and should not be taken at face value.” Every single denial the Obama campaign issued was a a lie, from the actual meeting to the underlying substance.
POSTSCRIPT: The campaign has admitted being in possession of all the facts when they issued their denials, so they can’t argue confusion. However, the story is muddled by the fact that the original CTV story contained some minor factual errors — such as whether the meeting happened at the Canadian Embassy or Consulate — so it could be argued that some of the denials were literally true. I’m comfortable calling a deliberate deception a lie, but if you like, you can read “lie” as “deception” in the last paragraph.