CJ Mayer: On trade, they're both lying

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - 5:29pm

Donald Trump’s entrance into the presidential election has brought a couple of policy issues to the forefront — and one of those is trade. Trump has yelled at the top of his lungs against trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while Clinton quietly tries to pivot away from the fact NAFTA was signed while she lived in the White House. While they both try to push their anti-trade rhetoric, history shows that they’re lying, and all in an attempt to woo the Midwest and the Rust Belt.

First, the facts on NAFTA and the TPP: NAFTA, signed by Bill Clinton, is a trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada to eliminate barriers to trade and investment between North American countries. Supporters like the organization Council on Foreign Relations argue that “some fourteen million jobs rely on trade with Canada and Mexico,” while the opposition argues that the added competition from low-wage countries has caused increased unemployment and wage stagnation.

Both sides have their merits: Free trade and globalization can lead to wage stagnation, but these things also promote higher-paying and better quality jobs. In reality, the net effect was financially positive, but the advantages are widespread while the negatives are concentrated in one area — manufacturing. In addition, trade agreements in general facilitate improved relationships between countries.

The TPP aims to do something similar: increase trade in order to create jobs. But in addition it seeks to act as a stopper on China’s rising power in Asia. By promoting trade and becoming more involved in the area, the United States hopes to exercise its influence to fight back against China’s rising influence. While economically the same pros and cons exist, the check on China is a big advantage that supporters, including President Barack Obama, really hope to implement.

Now, onto the candidates. Trump has repeatedly said that he plans to “rip up” trade agreements. The candidate, through his rhetoric, purposefully creates the impression that he is against any trade agreement, but this is not true. Trump claims not to be against free trade, but for “fair trade.” His proposed solution is to re-negotiate NAFTA, stop the TPP and impose a tariff on imported goods from China. He says he believes the world is taking advantage of us, and we need to be stricter with our trade agreements and be willing to walk away from them — in order to protect American jobs.

In reality, while Trump does believe these trade deals are hurting us, he is (most likely) practical and aware of his limitations in doing so as president. In his 2008 book, "Never Give Up," Trump wrote: “The important thing to consider is that more and more there is an interdependence of world economies. No one can afford to be isolationist any more. Keep your focus global. Globalization has torn down the barriers that have formerly separated the national from the international markets.” Trump is a manipulator — he uses his rhetoric to portray himself as the defender of the American worker, but he knows he can’t do it, and by slipping in the idea of “fair trade,” which does not mean anything (he can claim anything he negotiates is fair), he keeps the window open for him to flip on the issue come the time he sits in the Oval Office.  

Clinton sat in the White House in 1993 when her husband signed NAFTA into law, and she has praised the bill in the past. As secretary of state, she sat by Obama’s side as he negotiated and attempted to fast-track the TPP agreement. In spite of all of this, she stands in front of her crowds and claims she is against these agreements. Terry McAuliffe, arguably one of the Clinton’s closest confidants for years, slipped and admitted that Clinton has said she supports the TPP during recess. It’s hard to believe someone who fought for free trade for so long, who helped negotiate the TPP and said back in 2012 that it “sets the gold standard in trade agreements” all of a sudden thinks it to be unworthy.

So this brings us to the question of why. Why are they lying? Well, in an election where Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes is as slim as ever, he needs to win the Rust Belt, which includes Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. Trump’s game plan is to target white, working-class voters — the ones most affected by trade — and to claim that these trade agreements brought down the fall of the auto industry and the manufacturing Rust Belt. He hopes to win mostly white Western Pennsylvania to counter Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to take the state, and to target the fears of those in manufacturing Ohio and Michigan. If he could win those three states, he could win the presidency. Clinton knows this, too: If all she needs to do to win these three states is to lie about her thoughts on trade, she’ll do it. We don’t know how they’ll act once one of them sits in the Oval Office, but both are playing smart politics on trade. In other words: They’re lying.

CJ Mayer can be reached at mayercj@umich.edu.