One of Mark Penn’s employers, Hillary Clinton, opposes the Colombia FTA. Another, Burson-Marsteller, has been hired by the Colombian government to promote the FTA.
The Bush administration is nearing a likely exercise of the so-called “nuclear option” – introducing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement for ratification in Congress, against the will of the House Democratic majority and with no assurances that it will have enough votes to pass.
Once the bill is introduced, the so-called “fast track” rules for congressional debate would set in motion a countdown: the Congress would have ninety days in session (about five months) to bring the bill to a vote in both houses. That means the House of Representatives could be voting on the bill by June or July.
This will usher in a period of high-stakes political theater. And it is getting underway while the Democratic presidential candidates are competing in primary states – last month Ohio, now Pennsylvania – whose decaying industrial bases are believed to have been hit hard by free-trade agreements.
In these states, the whole idea of free trade is quite unpopular, especially with Democratic primary voters. A Democratic candidate who professes support for new free-trade agreements risks a voter backlash. As a result, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not only declared their opposition to the Colombia FTA, they have even been promising to re-negotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
Now, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is threatening to become a new source of presidential campaign controversy. As the April 22 vote in Pennsylvania nears, we may see both Obama and Clinton competing to show which one opposes the Colombia deal more.
On Wednesday, Obama, citing the dangerous climate for labor organizing, reiterated his opposition to the Colombia agreement. Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe put out a statement later that same day angrily rebuking Obama. “I deplore the fact that Senator Obama, aspiring to be president of the United States, should be unaware of Colombia’s efforts,” Uribe said. “I think it is for political calculations that he is making a statement that does not correspond to Colombia’s reality.”
Now the Wall Street Journal has a story on Friday’s front page pointing out that Senator Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, met on Monday with Carolina Barco, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, to discuss the FTA. In addition to working for the Clinton campaign, Penn heads a public-relations firm that the Colombian government hired last year to strategize on behalf of the FTA’s ratification.
To some extent, this isn’t surprising – Penn’s firm, Burson-Marsteller, is one of the largest PR agencies in the world. However, the perceived conflict with Senator Clinton’s anti-FTA stance could work to Obama’s advantage in Pennsylvania.
In February, Obama saw his Ohio campaign hurt badly by revelations that one of his economic advisors, University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee, had sought to reassure a Canadian consular official that Obama’s desire to re-negotiate NAFTA was nothing but idle campaign talk. Branding it “NAFTA-gate,” the Clinton campaign took maximum advantage of Goolsbee’s comments, and the attacks seemed to contribute to the margin of Obama’s loss in Ohio.
Now, with the Wall Street Journal running it on page one, we can expect a few days of counter-attacks from the Obama campaign about Mark Penn’s firm’s work in favor of the Colombia FTA.
As the Pennsylvania primary draws near, Colombia may become the subject of a national campaign controversy. If that comes to pass, we can expect an onslaught of distorted, simplistic rhetoric about security improvements, labor-union killings, Alvaro Uribe’s popularity, the drug trade, and much else.
Readers who know Colombia well: prepare to have your patience sorely tested.