CHICAGO – Democratic presidential candidates tangled Tuesday at an AFL-CIO forum over Iraq, Pakistan and corporate influence while mostly agreeing on issues crucial to their union audience, such as trade deals and increased spending on infrastructure.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for saying in an Aug. 1 speech that he would consider taking military action against Pakistan if intelligence identified al-Qaida targets there and President Pervez Musharraf would not act. “You shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences across the world,” she said.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd also criticized Obama. “Gen. Musharraf is no Thomas Jefferson,” but he is a U.S. ally, he said. Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden joined the fray. If al-Qaida sets up a base in Iraq after a U.S. withdrawal, he said, “all these people who are talking about going into Pakistan are going to have to send your kids back to Iraq.”
“I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me,” Obama replied.
Dodd, Clinton, former North Carolina senator John Edwards and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002. Obama was in the Illinois Legislature then and opposed the war.
The candidates agreed that the Iraq war is too costly and withdrawing U.S. troops would free up more money for improving bridges, roads and other infrastructure.
Edwards criticized NAFTA, the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that took effect in 1994 during Bill Clinton’s presidency. “This deal was negotiated by Washington insiders,” he said. “It’s cost us a million jobs.” Clinton said the way NAFTA has been implemented “has hurt a lot of American workers” and called for a “trade prosecutor” to enforce such agreements.
Referring to a photo of Clinton on the cover of the July 9 issue of Fortune with a headline reading “Business Loves Hillary,” Edwards said, “You will never see a picture of me on the front of Fortune magazine saying I’m the candidate that corporate America is betting on.”
Reiterating criticism of Clinton, Obama said trade deals hurt workers because corporate lobbyists have too much sway.
“For 15 years, I have stood up against the right-wing machine,” Clinton said. “So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I’m your girl.”
The 90-minute forum, moderated by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, was held in Soldier Field, the Chicago Bears’ stadium. The setting and audience of 15,000 union members made for a raucous, informal atmosphere. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel did not attend.
The forum was an opportunity for unions to show they have political clout despite dwindling membership. The Labor Department says there were 15.4 million union workers in 2006. That’s 12 percent of the work force, down from 20 percent in 1983.
Unions still run potent organizing operations in states with early caucuses or primaries.
Debbie Bindas, a nurse who is president of the Trumbull-Mahoning Counties Labor Council in Ohio, said union efforts to mobilize members are more advanced now than they were at this point before the 2000 and 2004 elections.
“There’s a reason” membership is dwindling, Bindas said. “Our jobs are going overseas.” One in four voters lives in a union household, she said. “We’re just as strong as we’ve ever been.”
Democratic candidates’ attentiveness to the AFL-CIO suggests that they agree. They pledged support for organized labor’s priorities, such as expanded health care coverage, pension security and expanding workers’ right to organize.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson promised to make a union member secretary of Labor if he is elected. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich said his first act as president would be to cancel NAFTA, which unions say causes falling wages and job losses.