The NAFTA blues


The North American Free Trade Agreement kicked in on Jan. 1, 1994, brokered by Bush 41 and sold by the Clinton administration as a bipartisan issue.

They were all up there in the East Room in September 1993 – Clinton, Bush Daddy, Gore, Jimmy Carter… they even trotted out Gerald Ford, who sounded a harbinger of the coming conventional wisdom with the subtle use of fear to close the presser.

“Defeat NAFTA and there will be a tremendous flow of Mexicans to the United States wanting jobs in the United States,” he said. “We don’t want that. We want Mexicans to stay in Mexico so they can work in their home country. We don’t want a huge flow of illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico.”

With the gift of hindsight, especially around these parts, we can see that NAFTA wasn’t the best deal for everybody and that, blast it all, quite a few Mexicans, it seems, will turn down the chance to make microchips in Guadalajara to take jobs cutting our lawns.

But let’s conveniently set aside the fact that Ross Perot was right (we can hear that giant sucking sound now) and look at “free trade” as a purely political issue, one that once again could be considered bipartisan.

Big-business types in the GOP, of course, have been behind NAFTA and other free trade agreements since they realized the effects of non-domestic labor on the price of widgets. But much of the party has perhaps firsthand knowledge of the devastation wreaked by the unquantifiable job losses nationwide since 1994.

Six in 10 Republicans believe that free trade is bad for the US economy, according to an October 2007 Washington Post/CNN poll, frustrating because their candidate said of NAFTA in 1999 that it has had “unambiguously… a net positive impact on the US economy.” In his time in the Senate since 1986, McCain has voted to oppose trade barriers 88 percent of the time.

The positions of the Democratic presidential contenders are a bit less clear as free trade becomes a football in the late stages of the primaries. But Hillary Clinton will forever be linked to NAFTA, which her husband fast-tracked in 1993 despite facing serious opposition from within his own party.

Both candidates [Clinton and Obama] say they’re for limitations on free trade, and their voting records would seem to bear that out – both voted to oppose trade barriers about a third of the time. And both pledge to alter NAFTA in some way upon election. Which should be good for some votes: A recent Rasmussen Reports poll describes likely Democratic primary voters as believing that free trade results in fewer jobs for Americans by a 46 percent to 28 percent margin.

But the truth of the matter is that the genie unleashed by NAFTA cannot be put back into the bottle. So while McCain’s position may be unpopular, it is, at least, consistent and honest.

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