The Clinton people have dubbed it NAFTA-gate, and desperately wish the press would do the same. The Obama people try to shrug the whole thing off.
The question is whether Barack Obama's Canadian contradictions over the North American free-trade agreement could tip the balance in today's mini Super Tuesday.
Here's what happened, based in part on a leaked memorandum obtained by The Associated Press, and on reports from CTV: Early in February, Austan Goolsbee, one of Mr. Obama's senior economic advisers, talked informally with officials at the Canadian consulate in Chicago. A consulate staffer wrote a memo based on the conversation, in which he said Mr. Goolsbee advised the Canadians that “much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political manoeuvring than policy.”
This memo made the rounds, and eventually the gist of the message was communicated to a CTV journalist, who reported that Mr. Obama was saying one thing about NAFTA to voters, but something quite different to the Canadian government.
Mr. Goolsbee insists his comments were taken out of context by the memo writer. The Canadian embassy in Washington strongly denied that there had been any communication between the Obama campaign and the embassy.
When that turned out to be technically, but not substantively, true – the communication was with the Chicago consulate, not the embassy – the embassy yesterday offered an apology, saying that “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.”
End of story? Hardly.
Throughout a marathon 75-minute conference call with reporters yesterday, senior Clinton campaign officials repeatedly stressed the importance of the contradiction between Mr. Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric and the private assurances of one of his advisers.
“The fact that his aide would be saying something in private very different to Canadian officials is very much on the minds of voters in Ohio,” maintained Howard Wolfson, Ms. Clinton's communications director.
“Because it's just flat-out wrong to tell the people of Ohio one thing in public about NAFTA and say something quite different to the government of Canada behind closed doors.”
Ms. Clinton said yesterday that she believed the Obama campaign had given the Canadian government “the old wink-wink.”
“I think that's the kind of difference between talk and action that I've been talking about,” she went on. “It raises questions about Senator Obama coming to Ohio and giving speeches against NAFTA.”
And in further display of his, like, totally awesome diplomatic skills, we have this from the Obama campaign:
The CBC reported yesterday that the affair had infuriated Mr. Obama and his senior advisers to the point that it could impair relations between an Obama administration and the Canadian government, quoting an Obama campaign official saying, “Why is Canada meddling in the internal affairs of the United States. … To provide such a false account at this juncture on the eve of a crucial election is not an accident, and it is really, really stupid.” But the Obama official who spoke to The Globe and Mail described the reaction as “overblown.”