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Truth, Lies and the Bosnian NAFTAgate

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Obama's supposed evasion around "NAFTAgate" played a key role in Hillary Clinton taking Ohio. If there's any justice, her Bosnia fabrications should now bring her down in the remaining states. Repeatedly this spring, Clinton described sniper fire, evasive maneuvers, a cancelled greeting ceremony, and having to run "with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." But the pilot who flew Clinton into Bosnia, Colonel William Changose, said there were no evasive maneuvers, just some steep hills surrounding the landing strip. There was no sniper fire, or "we wouldn't have landed." "There were no bullets flying around, there wasn't a bumblebee flying around." His words confirmed the video of an 8-year-old girl handing Hillary flowers while Chelsea looked on from behind. Hillary got caught, to put it bluntly, in a lie, not "misspeaking."

That's interesting, because Clinton's campaign of late has been based on attacking Obama's integrity and trying to paint him as the candidate of duplicity. The other day, in Harrisburg, PA, she even whipped up a crowd to boo him, saying "My opponent said one thing in Ohio and then his top economic adviser told the Canadian government--'Don't worry what he says, that's just politics.'"

These kinds of accusations have an impact. As the Ohio primary approached, the NAFTA trade agreement was a major issue, since this centerpiece of Bill Clinton's term had helped destroy massive numbers of industrial jobs throughout America's industrial heartland, with Ohio alone losing over 200,000. Even many Republicans I talked with considered it a disaster. Hillary chose not to defend her husband's actions, instead claiming she had "long been a critic" of the agreement. With the release of Clinton's schedules just after the Ohio primary, it has now come out that she argued strongly for its passage in a key private meeting with women business leaders. But even before this last story broke, she'd embraced it enough for Obama to highlight their contrasting history, and he was steadily closing a once 25-point gap.

Then, on February 27, Canadian network CTV reported that even as Obama was publicly criticizing NAFTA, he'd had a top staffer arrange a meeting to reassure the Canadians that this was all just campaign pandering. The likely source was Ian Brodie, Chief of Staff to right-wing Prime Minister Stephen Harper. American media jumped all over the story, which appeared to be proof of Obama's hypocrisy. After the Canadian embassy denied it, Obama also said it was false. CTV then reported a Feb 8 conversation in Chicago with senior Obama economic advisor Austin Goolsbee. A follow-up leak released a memo supposedly summarizing the meeting, quoting Goolsbee as saying Obama's statements were more "political positioning than the clear articulation of policy plans." The story dominated media headlines, and Clinton began making it the focus of her attacks.

"NAFTAgate" flipped voter perceptions on an issue where Obama should have had a key advantage. Clinton ended up getting a majority of voters who expressed a sense "that trade takes jobs away," a majority of those worried about their family's economic situation, and most union members, a group that Obama had carried in his recent victories. Clinton won overwhelmingly with late-breaking voters, the reverse of what had been happening. Most important, by casting doubt on Obama's integrity, the cornerstone of his campaign, Clinton made him seem like just another hack politician who'd say anything to win--a message she continues to repeat.

But as the Canadian reports have made clear, the core of the story was false. The Canadian government contacted Goolsbee to clarify Obama's position on trade, not the reverse. Although Goolsbee did talk on February 8 with Canada's Chicago consul general (not, as was originally reported, the Canadian ambassador), there's no evidence that he ever described Obama's position as mere political posturing. They met before NAFTA began to dominate the campaign, and discussed the trade agreement for two to three minutes out of almost an hour. Goolsbee responded to Canadian questions by clarifying that Obama wasn't pushing to scrap NAFTA entirely, but that the agreement needed labor and environmental safeguards--exactly what Obama had been saying in public. The memo was simply inaccurate, as even the Harper government now acknowledges after a firestorm of criticism by opposition parliament members who've accused Harper's staffers of trying to help their Republican political allies. In response, Harper said, "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."

So Clinton has now been caught lying about Bosnia, lying about her own role in NAFTA, and lying about Obama's stance on the agreement. She's been caught vastly exaggerating her role in Northern Ireland--Nobel Peace Prize winner Lord David Trimble called Clinton's claims that she helped create the Northern Ireland settlement "a wee bit silly." She has stood by and said nothing while a key ally, Machinists Union head Tom Buffenbarger, introduced her using recycled lies from the right-wing Club For Growth to dismiss Obama supporters as "latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies." And she has lied about Obama's experience in a way that hands a prime talking point to John McCain, reducing it to "a speech he made in 2002." The question is when these lies will catch up with her.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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