Stan Greenberg is a pollster and political strategist.
Donald Trump disrupted the 2016 election and won many “forgotten Americans” in part by promising to fight for lower prescription drug prices and to tear up or renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) and any other trade agreement that disadvantaged American workers.
His rival for the presidency, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was hamstrung by her inability to attack these deals: Her husband signed the first into law, while her former boss, President Barack Obama, campaigned to win ratification for the TPP. This restriction left room for candidate Trump to attack the secrecy and special interests that rigged U.S. trade deals to make it easier to outsource American jobs and to make trade a voting issue in the industrial battleground states.
But, ironically, the intensifying debate over the renegotiated NAFTA that President Trump is seeking to rebrand as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) suggests that the president’s trade policy is not so different from those of his predecessors. Certainly, the new coalition of 200 corporations and business lobby groups, including Citibank, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Farm Bureau Federation, that just launched a campaign to push Trump’s renegotiated North American trade deal through Congress doesn’t seem to think that there’s anything new in the deal that threatens business-as-usual.
And when told more about what is in “NAFTA 2.0,” voters in surveys and focus groups I’ve conducted this year for Public Citizen have second thoughts about the supposedly new and improved trade deal.
In the president’s 2019 State of the Union address, he unwittingly spotlighted the biggest vulnerability for his revised NAFTA 2.0. He called on Congress to pass it, “so we can bring back our manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expanding American agriculture, protecting intellectual property.”
He failed to mention what is really in the renegotiated agreement. Consider what “protecting intellectual property” means. Industry lobbyists were fully at work in shaping America’s negotiating priorities. So, pharmaceutical companies locked in policies that guarantee pharmaceutical companies 10 years of special monopoly rights on a special class of drugs and other special protections that block competition and mean higher drug prices in all three countries.
Three-quarters of registered voters in my national phone survey at the outset of 2019 said that raised serious doubts for them, almost half “very serious.” That was true, too, for the white working-class voters who put Trump in the White House and even more so, for Democratic voters.
The president also failed to mention that the new deal preserves special corporate rights for some U.S. oil and gas corporations that allow the companies to challenge Mexican environmental regulations before tribunals of three corporate lawyers. These investor protections could block Mexico from taking new steps to address climate change. That gets the attention of 70 percent of those for whom it raises serious doubts. But it is particularly important for those voting Democratic in 2020: More than 60 percent said that factor raised “very serious” doubts.
The president also did not mention how his new deal might affect food safety. Members of the public are actually most upset when they hear that the renegotiated NAFTA does not fix the rules in the original NAFTA that require the United States to accept imports of meat and poultry imported from Mexico and Canada that do not meet U.S. safety standards. That raises serious doubts for three-quarters of Americans, half “very serious.”
It was the inclusion of the pharmaceutical provision that led people in my focus groups in both Macomb County, Mich., and Seattle to connect the dots on how corporate special interests shape the laws that are enacted: Focus-group participants volunteered that provisions favoring pharmaceutical companies shouldn’t be in a trade agreement. The other participants agreed and steered the conversation to how corporate lobbyists must have used their influence to stick it in there.
More important, public awareness about what really is in the renegotiated North American trade agreement generates demand to alter the text of the deal; half of the white working class would demand major changes or have Congress vote against it. Overall, 42 percent of registered voters and almost 60 percent of Democrats say Congress should demand major changes before the trade agreement is sent to Congress.
This should not be a surprise. That a coalition of corporate interests is demanding Congress move quickly to ratify the agreement only confirms how little Trump has really disrupted. If the administration and Democrats remember the mandate of 2016, they will strip away the corporate special deals that comprise “NAFTA 2.0” and deliver the change the president promised on the campaign trail.