WASHINGTON — President Clinton is closing one policy disagreement with Senator Clinton while keeping another alive, saying his wife is right to forbid the use of torture but wrong that his signature trade deal has "hurt" American workers.
In separate television interviews yesterday, the former president danced around suggestions of a serious policy difference with Mrs. Clinton, but he did open a rare sliver of daylight between them. He staunchly defended his decision in 1993 to support the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Mrs. Clinton said over the summer had "hurt a lot of American workers."
Asked directly by ABC's George Stephanopoulos if he agreed that the pact had hurt workers, Mr. Clinton replied, "No." He said NAFTA had become a "symbol" but America had worse trade deficits with countries such as China and Japan than it did with Mexico.
Mr. Clinton's response provided another clue to answering a question that could draw increasing attention during the presidential campaign: How will a second Clinton administration differ from the first?
Mrs. Clinton has come under pressure from her rivals for the Democratic nomination, who have stepped up their criticism of free trade and NAFTA in particular. The former first lady has distanced herself from the legacy of NAFTA, but she has done so without faulting her husband's administration.
"I have said that for many years, that, you know, NAFTA and the way it's been implemented has hurt a lot of American workers," she said at an AFL-CIO presidential forum in August. She said she was for "smart trade," "pro-American trade," and she touted her opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement and to giving the president "fast-track" authority to negotiate future trade pacts.
Mr. Clinton struck a somewhat different tone yesterday in his appearance on ABC's "This Week." While noting that NAFTA had largely been negotiated before he came into office, he said it had increased manufacturing jobs and median income, and he cited his efforts to enforce environmental and labor standards. He blamed the Republican Congress during the 1990s and the Bush administration for failing to fund more enforcement action.
But ultimately, he stood by the agreement. "It's the best I could do," he said. "Knowing what I know, would I still try to pass it today? Absolutely."
Responding to Mr. Clinton yesterday, the campaign of John Edwards assailed both husband and wife for making NAFTA a priority in 1993. "The Clintons had a choice to push NAFTA or universal health care and, mistakenly, they chose NAFTA," Mr. Edwards's campaign manager, David Bonior, said in a statement. "NAFTA not only cost us millions of American jobs, but without universal health care over 47 million people have been left uninsured."
Mr. Bonior added: "John Edwards won't make that mistake, nor will he make trade policy that benefits corporate insiders at the expense of middle class families and American jobs."
Substantive policy differences between Mr. and Mrs. Clinton have been few and far between. Other than trade, the most notable may be gay rights; the New York senator has called for an end to the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy initiated at the beginning of her husband's term. She also has backed off her support for the 1996 "Defense of Marriage Act," although she does not support same-sex marriage.
On the issue of torture, Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he had, in effect, changed his mind from a position he took last year, when he suggested the president be allowed to authorize the use of torture in extraordinary cases where a terrorist attack is imminent. His words became fodder for a memorable moment in the Democratic debate last week, when Mrs. Clinton repudiated them before being told by the questioner, Tim Russert of NBC, that they were spoken by her husband. "Well, he's not standing here right now," Mrs. Clinton replied, generating a burst of applause from the audience. Mr. Russert pressed her on the disagreement, but she deflected the query with a light-hearted riff that generated even more applause. "Well, I'll talk to him later," she said with a grin.
After repeatedly lauding her response, Mr. Clinton yesterday said she was also correct. "On this general point I think she's right," he told Mr. Russert on "Meet the Press." "That is I think America's policy should be to oppose torture, to honor the Geneva Conventions."
Referencing the television show "24," he said that while American policy should not include an exception to the torture ban, there may arise a circumstance where an American official is interrogating a high-level terrorist who knows where and when an imminent attack will occur. "And if you're the Jack Bauer person, you'll just do whatever you'll do and just be prepared to take the consequences," Mr. Clinton said. "And I think the consequences will be imposed based on what turns out to be the truth."