I have learned that all of the leading Democratic contenders have signed a statement opposing congressional passage of Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA unless major changes are made. This could make it more difficult for Democrats — many of whom have already criticized the deal — to pass it, which could, in turn, end up denying Trump a serious political victory going into the 2020 election.
The top-tier Democratic candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala D. Harris, and Beto O’Rourke — have all joined a statement that was written by the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of groups pushing changes to the deal, which is known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.
That statement, which was sent my way, says Congress should not enact the deal “unless and until stronger labor and environmental terms with swift and certain enforcement are added and language on pharmaceutical monopolies that locks in high medicine prices is removed.”
All six of those campaigns confirmed to me that they had signed on.
The USMCA alters the old NAFTA in numerous ways. It requires a higher percentage of automobiles to be manufactured in the three countries to qualify for no tariffs, and it also requires 40 percent to 45 percent of auto parts on such cars to be manufactured by workers making at least $16 per hour by 2023. It also expands patent protections for drugs against generic competition.
As it is, many House Democrats want improvements to this deal, in the form of better labor and wage standards, as well as tougher mechanisms to enforce those standards, and they view the copyright expansion as a giveaway to Big Pharma. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), under pressure from labor, recently said the deal won’t get a House vote without changes.
Trump is desperate to get this deal through Congress, and Vice President Pence has reportedly been trying to generate support for it in battleground House districts in the industrial Midwest, in hopes of pressuring House Democrats to support it.
But now that the top-tier Democratic candidates have signed on to a statement opposing congressional approval without substantial changes, it could become more difficult to get it approved. If it doesn’t, Trump might have to revisit the deal with Canada and Mexico, which he surely does not want to do. The changes the Democratic candidates want are broadly in keeping with what labor and many House Democrats want.
This is of particular interest when it comes to Biden and O’Rourke. Warren and Sanders have long opposed NAFTA. But Biden and O’Rourke have supported NAFTA in the past, and progressives have trained particular fire on the former vice president over trade, seeing him as representative of the pro-free-trade, corporate wing of the Democratic Party.
But Biden’s call for changes to the current NAFTA rewrite suggests he’s trying to shore up his left flank against such attacks.
“Joe Biden believes that the agreement the Trump Administration has negotiated is a gift to big pharmaceutical companies," Biden spokesman Andrew Bates tells me, adding that “its labor and environmental provisions must be strengthened, in a fully-enforceable fashion." Many of the other presidential candidates provided the Citizens Trade Campaign with statements echoing these concerns.
All this also reflects movement in the Democratic Party toward a more progressive overall position on trade, and these criticisms of NAFTA provide a kind of template around which a party-wide consensus might start to form in opposition to Trump on this issue.
As economist Jared Bernstein explains, Trump is vulnerable on trade even though he successfully exploited general dissatisfaction over the issue in 2016, because his actual agenda hasn’t sufficiently focused on workers (copyright protections don’t necessarily mean more manufacturing jobs). What’s more, his trade wars have been motivated by a reflexive anti-globalization posture, and are causing disruptions that are harming his key constituencies.
By contrast, Democrats can stand for restoring sensible, reality-based international cooperation and deal-making to the heart of our trade agenda. As Bernstein points out, this can also include industrial policy — along the lines of what Warren has proposed — that involves government efforts to help industries such as green technology compete globally and to assist smaller companies in assisting in global supply chains.
Part of such an agenda could include a better renegotiated NAFTA — that is, a more pro-worker, pro-environment international agreement. Though there will be extensive battling in the primaries over this issues, the Democratic candidates appear to have edged in the direction of such a consensus.