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Canada Strikes Back

If you haven't been following this Austan Goolsbee/Canadian consulate mini-flap, this piece is probably as good a place as any to get up to speed. I was actually alerted to the piece--which focuses on a memo written by a Canadian consular official after Goolsbee's meeting there--by the Clinton campaign. But while it's clearly an annoyance for the Obama campaign, it doesn't strike me as hugely damning.

Anyway, here's the key passage, based on the memo:

Goolsbee disputed a section that read: "Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign. He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."

"This thing about 'it's more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans,' that's this guy's language," Goolsbee said of DeMora. "He's not quoting me.

"I certainly did not use that phrase in any way," Goolsbee said. ...

The memo obtained by the AP was widely distributed within the Canadian government. It is more than 1,300 words and covers many topics that DeMora said were discussed in the Feb. 8 "introductory meeting" between himself, Goolsbee and the consul general in Chicago, Georges Rioux.

Goolsbee "was frank in saying that the primary campaign has been necessarily domestically focused, particularly in the Midwest, and that much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy," the memo's introduction said. "On NAFTA, Goolsbee suggested that Obama is less about fundamentally changing the agreement and more in favour of strengthening/clarifying language on labour mobility and environment and trying to establish these as more 'core' principles of the agreement."

Goolsbee said that [last] sentence is true and consistent with Obama's position. But he said other portions of the memo were inaccurate.

I suspect Goolsbee was doing what campaign officials often do, which is try to tailor his message to the group he was addressing without undercutting any core principles or stated positions. It wouldn't shock me if the Canadians heard a bit more of what they wanted to hear than what Goolsbee actually said (that's often the point, after all). And Goolsbee, who's trained as an economist, not a campaign operative, may have been a little casual in parsing his terms. But I really doubt he went so far as to say Obama was just pandering to Ohio voters on NAFTA, or that his boss didn't believe what he'd been saying on the campaign trail. That'd be a pretty dumb thing to say even if he believed it, and Goolsbee is not a dumb man.

Moreover, what's shocking here isn't that this kind of conversation took place. I'm sure aides to Obama and Hillary have had dozens, if not hundreds, like it since the campaign started. What's shocking is that a foreign government would leak it to the press. That seems like a pretty egregious breach of protocol--more like a dirty trick by an operative in a conservative government than anything else. I can't imagine it'll bode well for U.S.-Canadian relations if Obama makes it to the White House ...

Update: See my latest (revisionist) post on this.

--Noam Scheiber