Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton discovered an unlikely foreign-policy role model this week: George W. Bush.
Democrats perpetually accuse the president of displaying contempt for international opinion and pursuing an arrogant and bullying unilateralism. As caricatures go, it's not an unreasonable portrait.
But Obama and Clinton, in their Cleveland debate on Tuesday, sounded every bit as belligerent as they threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement unless Mexico and Canada agreed to rewrite the deal's provisions for protecting labor unions and the environment. That pledge places them on track to send the world the same sort of dismissive message upon taking office as Bush did in 2001 when he abrogated the missile defense treaty with Russia and abandoned the Kyoto agreement on climate change.
Some prominent Democrats recognize the contradiction between re-engaging the world and threatening to renounce NAFTA. At an innovative economic policy debate last Monday between leading House Democrats and Republicans, all four Democrats participating -- including House Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, an Obama supporter -- opposed renegotiating NAFTA. "I'm not a fan [of] reopening agreements we've negotiated, because the rest of the world thinks we don't keep our word enough as it is," Davis said.
Obama and Clinton have a substantive case to make. Concluded in 1993, NAFTA relegates provisions safeguarding labor rights and the environment to a side agreement. Subsequent U.S. trade deals have incorporated those questions into the core agreement, creating more effective means of enforcement.
So Obama and Clinton are not unreasonable in asking that NAFTA be updated in the same manner. But their overwrought denunciations of the agreement and their hectoring threats hardly seem the most promising means of getting there. As president, neither would persuade Mexico and Canada to reassess the labor and environmental provisions without addressing those countries' concerns, some of which, such as increasing access for Mexican trucks to U.S. roads, would incite great controversy in this country. At home, either would need to reassure free-traders and businesses that have invested in Mexico that they are not simply seeking to scuttle the agreement. On both fronts, the common theme is that they are likely to succeed only by broadening their agenda beyond the immediate needs of their political allies.
That's something both candidates have lately shown less willingness to do. Both, in fact, are sounding steadily more like John Edwards, who left the race without winning a single primary.
Edwards argued that it was a "complete fantasy" for Obama to maintain that he could advance a progressive agenda by negotiating with Republicans and business interests; only an "epic fight" could bring the change that Democrats seek. At the time, Obama insisted that Edwards was misguided. ("We don't need more heat," Obama said. "We need more light.") Clinton positioned herself between the two, promising to work with Republicans and business interests when possible and to confront them when necessary.
But both Obama and Clinton have subsumed their promises of reconciliation to an anti-corporate populism in these final days before potentially decisive Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4. When Obama was asked in Tuesday's debate how he would change Washington, he omitted his trademark promises to bridge partisan divides; instead he pledged to mobilize the public to smite special interests. Clinton, echoing Edwards, incessantly declared herself a "fighter."
The candidates believe that this tough talk will woo blue-collar voters (especially in Ohio), who justifiably feel squeezed. But struggling families need more economic help, not more political brawls. And any president is more likely to deliver that help by ending, not extending, Washington's cycle of paralyzing partisan conflict.
It's true that bipartisan accommodation isn't always possible, and even when it is, presidents often must demonstrate that they can take and deliver a punch before adversaries will negotiate. But on most issues, from health care to expanding economic opportunity, the central challenge facing the next president is finding creative ways to avoid the head-on partisan and ideological collisions that have accumulated through Bush's presidency like freeway wrecks in a snowstorm. Obama in particular once understood this. It is odd that his vision is narrowing as he nears the wider stage of the general election.