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Dems on Wrong Side of NAFTA Debate

The debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement isn’t just about trade, jobs and the perpetual tug-of-war between business and labor. It’s also about geography. How you feel about NAFTA has a lot to do with where you live.

In the nearly fifteen years since President Bill Clinton signed the treaty, I’ve lived in three states that were NAFTA-friendly — California, Arizona, and Texas. All were full of businesses that did lots of trade with Mexico and Canada and consumers that benefited from having access to new markets and new products.

I’ve never lived in Ohio, which is scheduled to hold its primary on March 4th. But I have visited a number of cities in that state to give speeches. What hits me is that so many residents have surrendered control over their destiny to ominous forces beyond their control. You don’t find much of that out West, where people still believe that their lives are shaped by their own hand.

For people who shrink from competition and think that it’s government’s job to provide and protect — to provide them with well-paying/low-effort jobs and protect the jobs the already have — there is a lot to love in Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, each of whom is barnstorming through Ohio painting the other as someone who condones free trade.

The horror!

Lately, the debate in the Buckeye State has centered on a mailer sent to voters from the Obama campaign, which insists that Clinton was a supporter of NAFTA until she started running for president. Apparently, drawing from Clinton’s public comments, there is evidence to support that.

Clinton claims that she has changed her mind and yet in the same breath insists that she has been consistent and had qualms about NAFTA all along, even back when her husband was lobbying the Senate to ratify the agreement. What she wants now, she says, is to fix the trade pact and she’s willing to play hardball.

During this week’s Democratic debate in Cleveland, which was televised on MSNBC, Clinton offered assurances that — if she is elected president — she’ll threaten Mexico and Canada: Either agree to revisions in the trade deal, or the United States will pull out of the deal. When asked if he would do the same if he were elected president, Obama said yes.

Lovely. That would set a great precedent for all sorts of future agreements that we might sign with other countries, some of which we might actually like the parties to adhere to. Democrats are always saying how, in foreign policy, President Bush has practiced cowboy diplomacy. Well, when it comes to trade policy, what are Democrats proposing but more of the same?

Besides, shouldn’t the liberal position be that free trade is essential to the development of poor countries. Why should the United States — which represents such a small percentage of the world’s population — control so much of its wealth?

Personally, if the idea is to defend free trade, I prefer a different argument — one that I’d love to see Democrats make to crowds in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other economically challenged “Rust Belt” states but probably never will.

It goes like this: Trade is about competition, and competition is an essential part of life. And it’s not the duty of government to protect you from it by pulling up drawbridges and pulling out of trade deals. We’re a better country than that, and it’s time we started acting like it.

On second thought, that’s a message that shouldn’t be limited by geography. It should be spread around the country, from sea to shining sea.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer and a regular contributor to CNN.com.