Anatomy of a smear: Obama and NAFTA

No, a senior member of the Obama campaign did not call the Canadian Ambassador to say “never mind” about Obama’s call to renegotiate NAFTA. Even CTV’s original source has now backed away from that claim: “perhaps a miscommunication.” To cover its journalistic butt, CTV is now hinting darkly about a phone call from Austan Goolsbee, not a staffer but an academic adviser to Obama, not to the Ambassador but to someone in the Canadian Consulate-General in Chicago. John McCain, having frankly said he had no idea whether the original story was true, now pretends to believe it, and uses it to question Obama’s integrity. Taylor Marsh and Larry Johnson side with McCain. Feh.

The Canadian network CTV reports that a senior staffer for the Obama campaign called the Canadian Ambassador to the US and said that he should ignore whatever Obama said about wanting to renegotiate NAFTA, because it was just for domestic consumption.

Obama denies it. The ambassador denies it. McCain, having first said he didn’t know whether it was true, later decides to assume it is true and use it to attack Obama’s integrity.

Turncoat Democrats are all over it; CTV originally stands by its story, which to fever-swamp residents like Taylor Marsh and Larry Johnson proves that it must be true. After all, since people in the Bush administration have told lies, anything a Canadian official says should be assumed to be false. (No, I don’t follow that logic, either.)

Just one thing, though: the story reeks of fish, and CTV, far from standing behind it, is rapidly backing away from it. The original account vaguely mentions “Canadian sources.” The follow-up, which includes denials from Obama and from the Ambassador, gets a little more specific: now the source is said to be “a high-ranking member of the Canadian embassy.” But suddenly that source isn’t so sure he had it right in the first place: “He has since suggested it was perhaps a miscommunication.”

Swiftly switching gears, CTV now claims to be pursuing, not a conversation between a senior Obama staffer and the Canadian Ambassador, but a phone call between Austan Goolsbee &#8212 not a staffer but an academic at the University of Chicago who has been advising Obama &#8212 and someone (unnamed, of course) in the Canadian Consulate-General in Chicago.

Since we have no evidence for any of this save the word of CTV, and since CTV can’t get its story straight, anyone who claims to believe the story &#8212 that is, McCain and his odd bedfellows Marsh and Johnson &#8212 ought to be presumed to be in bad faith. It might be true, but there’s no reason for any fair-minded person to believe that it’s true.

Is it possible that Goolsbee &#8212 like most economists, a free trader by instinct &#8212 tried to say something calming to someone he knew at the Consulate General in Chicago? Sure. But so what?

Footnote Both Clinton and Obama are to be condemned for their irresponsible pretense that we can or should force Mexico and Canada to renegotiate NAFTA by threatening to withdraw from it. That’s not how a decent country, or a country that wants to rebuild its foreign relations after eight years of intolerable arrogance, ought to act.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: