During his interview which aired on 60 Minutes last night, Donald Trump declared NAFTA “a disaster” and went on to say “we will either renegotiate it or we will break it.”
His rhetoric echoes that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on NAFTA during the 2008 campaign. In her debate with Obama in Cleveland in February 2008, Hillary stated, “I will say we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate on terms that are favorable to all of America.” For his part, Obama stated, “One of the first things I’ll do as President will be to call the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of Mexico and work with them to fix NAFTA.” During the Ohio primary, Obama called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake.“
There would be a minor row in March 2008 when it was revealed a memo had surfaced in which Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee had met with officials at Canada’s consulate in Chicago to tell them that Obama’s views on NAFTA “should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.” By the time it was clear that Obama had won the Democratic Party nomination that June, he pretty much confirmed Goolsbee’s memo telling Fortune, “Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified.” These days, Obama is downright enthusiatic about free trade with his support for TPP.
In the event Trump is elected President, I doubt that he would actually revisit NAFTA. It would cause too much economic uncertainty and if there is anything business hates it is uncertainty. As much as he might want to use it as a cudgel against Mexico, Canada would stand in its way. Even if Canada elects the Liberals or the NDP next month, they won’t touch NAFTA despite their own past opposition to it. (NAFTA was originally the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement which was negotiated in 1987 between President Reagan and Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney). If Trump actually tries to break NAFTA, the WTO would put the kibosh on that just as they did with George W. Bush’s tariffs on steel.
The last thing Republican voters should want is a candidate who emulates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on trade.