While Austan Goolsbee is no Austin Powers, maybe Stephen Harper is Doctor Evil

By: Sandford BorinsIt isn't at all unexpected that NAFTA became an issue in the Democratic primaries, but it is very surprising and deeply distressing that the Canadian Government got caught in the cross-fire between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Why did this happen? Who screwed up? What could have been done differently?When Clinton and Obama both began attacking NAFTA, the Canadian government responded at two levels. Publicly, Prime Minister Harper and International Trade Minister David Emerson came to the defense of NAFTA, and former trade negotiator Gordon Ritchie took to the op-ed pages.Second, the Canadian Embassy and consulates in the U.S. initiated quiet diplomacy with both the Clinton and Obama campaigns. One of the people to whom they reached out was A-list University of Chicago economics professor and senior Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee.Consular officials in Chicago reported their conversation up the line, writing that Goolsbee described Obama's speeches on NAFTA as “more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.”Someone in Ottawa, likely in the Prime Minister's Office, leaked the memo. The Clinton campaign, going negative for political survival, seized on the memo as evidence of Obama's hypocrisy and lack of commitment to preserving American jobs. The results of the primaries in Ohio and Texas suggest that the leak helped Clinton stay alive.So who's at fault here?I think it was entirely appropriate for Prime Minister Harper, Minister Emerson, Gordon Ritchie, and other commentators to defend NAFTA publicly. On the other hand, quiet diplomacy only works if it stays quiet, and on this occasion it didn't – big time. Don't be surprised if neither Clinton's nor Obama's campaigns return future calls from our diplomats.Goolsbee displays the limits of professorial hubris. Professors can be brilliant in their own field but naive about the bigger world. Many professors love to speak to the media or smart people from business or government who express an interest in their ideas.A professor who is a senior adviser to a political campaign is no longer speaking for himself, but for the candidate. Goolsbee, who later told the Associated Press that he was “surprised that such a banal and trivial meeting with a low-level consulate official has created so much controversy” should have refused the Chicago consulate's invitation, or at least cleared it first.Whoever leaked the report of the meeting with Goolsbee in the hope of knee-capping Barack Obama should consider two things. First, while the Harper government may not like Barack Obama, there is a reasonable chance that in 10 months it will have to deal with President Obama. This leak is not the way to lay the basis for a productive relationship.Second, the Democratic primaries' retail politics, displaying daily Hillary Clinton's passionate commitment to change and Barack Obama's cool charisma and inclusive vision, have impressed many Canadians. Both candidates contrast sharply with Stephen Harper's back-room bully image. The controversy the leak has stirred up just serves to make the contrast sharper.

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