The Clinton campaign has relentlessly pushed a quote from former Clinton White House adviser David Gergen as evidence that as first lady, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., opposed NAFTA.
Which is interesting since, as you may know, Gergen was the MC of sorts for that pro-NAFTA rally that Clinton spoke at that appeared on her schedule for Nov. 10, 1993.
So what’s the deal?
This afternoon, I gave Mr. Gergen a ring to see if he could clarify it all for us. And, true to form, he quite generously obliged.
Clinton was, Gergen recalls, "distinctly unenthusiastic about NAFTA."
"Part of her concern was clearly about timing," he says. It took the Clinton administration about six months to get its budget passed.
"She thought health care would be next, but (then-Treasury Secretary) Lloyd Bentsen and others thought NAFTA needed to be next," he says.
This was an issue of political capital, Gergen says. A president only has so much of it. Former President Bill Clinton had already used quite a bit of it for his budget bill, which included tax increases. NAFTA, which unions opposed, would cost more. Bill Clinton "had to do a lot of arm-twisting" on NAFTA.
"That was capital she wanted to reserve for health care," he says. "She was not happy about having to do NAFTA."
But there was also a question about the substance of NAFTA.
"The was considerable division within the White House about whether NAFTA was right on the merits," says Gergen, "and I always associate her with those who had questions about it on the merits."
This is where it gets interesting. "Arguments about policy are always before a decision is made. Once the president makes a decision everybody falls in line. I feel like she was among those who leaned against it on the merits. I do not remember her at a meeting arguing it out, I just felt she always had reservations."
Then the decision was made and the first lady fell in line, along with the rest of the administration, Gergen says, to help get NAFTA passed.
About the Nov. 10, 1993 meeting, Gergen says, "she was not suddenly a convert to NAFTA. It’s just that when the president decides something, people around him are going to support that decision. I thought she was a good soldier on that."
That makes complete sense to me, and squares with common sense. But it does not undercut the notion that Clinton helped argue the case for NAFTA and helped make it law.