Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton distanced herself Monday from one of her husband's signature White House achievements, saying NAFTA should be reassessed and "adjusted" and any new free trade agreements postponed.
"I think we do need to take a deep breath and figure out how we can make it work for the greatest numbers of people," she told USA TODAY. Clinton said NAFTA's benefits have gone to the wealthy and cost jobs for working people. She said a "timeout" in new accords would last until she felt the issue of trade in the 21st century had been adequately studied.
In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lifted most tariffs on goods traded among the United States, Mexico and Canada.
The New York senator said she has no qualms about splitting with her husband on a key economic point — one in which he battled fellow Democrats and their union allies. "Part of leadership is continuing to evaluate what we currently do to figure out if we can do it better," she said.
In the interview and in a speech that launched her two-day "Middle Class Express" bus tour of Iowa, Clinton addressed an issue that has imperiled her standing with some labor leaders: Bill Clinton's embrace of globalization and free trade.
"I think that on balance, trade was a net positive for America and American workers during the 20th century," she said in the interview. "We have to consider carefully, 'What's the role of trade going forward? How best do we position the United States to take advantage of the global economy?' And I don't think we've had a serious conversation about that."
Her comments are reassuring to some of her husband's liberal critics, says Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, which raised concerns about the Clinton-era trade deals. "There are many people who fear electing Sen. Clinton would be just a redo, but I think that may be mistaken," he said.
Mishel has seen "an evolution in her thinking," including her vote in 2005 against a Central American trade deal.
The former first lady has split with her husband on only a few issues, including on his view that torture can be used to foil a terrorist plot. She has said torture shouldn't be U.S. policy. She also has called for an update of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy he devised for gays in the military.