, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Usually, paying attention to instances of politicians and other public figures getting up on their soapboxes is a waste of time. Yesterday served up an exception: a press conference held by House Democrats in reaction to President Trump’s official decision to open talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The statements recorded in this Politico account offer some evidence as to which leaders on America’s Left are willing to work with the administration on trade policies that can help the working class voters Democrats still profess to champion, and those who will remain content to sit on the sidelines and take partisan potshots.

Reportedly, all of the House members who spoke at the event “said…they feared Trump would make only modest changes to NAFTA after blasting it as an economic disaster throughout last year’s presidential campaign.” The basis for these worries? The letter sent yesterday by new U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to Congressional leaders announcing the administration’s intention to open NAFTA talks with the two other signatories, Canada and Mexico. According to these House Democrats and some other trade critics, the document apparently was “short on details,” which many claimed indicated Trump’s intention simply to “tweak” rather than comprehensively overhaul the agreement.

All else equal, wondering about the president’s real intentions is anything but unreasonable. His personality, after all, is mercurial, and one of his major trade initiatives to date – the negotiations begun with Beijing following February’s summit with Chinese leader XiJinping – has legitimately disappointed advocates of the major course change he pledged during the campaign. (The other major trade initiative, scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, kept a leading campaign promise to the letter.) Moreover, the Lighthizer letter is indeed short on specifics.

But none of the participants in the press conference seems to have noticed that in previous statements –including reportedly to leading Democratic lawmakers, top Trump officials have emphasized the need for dramatic NAFTA changes.

For example, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has described as high NAFTA-related priorities greatly tightening the pact’s rules of origin in order to incentivize more non-NAFTA manufacturing investment inside the free trade zone, and restructuring a dispute-resolution system that gives each signatory an equal vote even though the United States represents more than 85 percent of North America’s total economic output. Reinforcing this point was the Lighthizer letter’s contention that “establishing effective implementation and aggressive enforcement of the commitments made by our trading partners under our trade agreements is vital to the success of these agreements and should be improved in the context of NAFTA.”

Meanwhile, Lighthizer reportedly has told Senators that the administration is thinking of adding to NAFTA rules that would prohibit currency manipulation – a move that would set a valuable precedent for future trade deals. In addition, his letter mentioned the need to improve NAFTA’s labor and environmental protections. In my view, they’re largely unenforceable. But they’ve been a prime focus of Democratic Party trade policy positions for decades.

So given that background, it seems fair at this point to finger Connecticut’s Rosa deLauro, New Jersey’s Bill Pascrell, and Massachusetts’ Richard Neal as grandstanders. The former stressed the “tweaking” allegation. The latter two charged that “It was clear from the start that the administration was only interested in working with the Congressional Republican leadership in drafting this notice [the Lighthizer letter].”

I’d also include in this group several key Senate Democrats, including Leader Charles Schumer of New York, former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of New York, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. They voted against Lighthizer’s confirmation despite his decades-long record of fighting predatory foreign trade practices both as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative during the Reagan administration, and as a trade lawyer representing domestic American producers.

More temperate in their judgments were Michigan’s Debbie Dingell, and the AFL-CIO’s Thea Lee. The former stated that she was “investing the time to understand where the consensus is.” The latter said, “We enter every negotiation in a good faith state of mind and we expect a lot from our government. Certainly candidate Trump made a lot of promises about fixing flawed trade agreements and looking out for American workers and good jobs, so we will hold him and his administration to that promise.”

I can’t think of a more reasonable position for politicians and other supporters of a movement that still styles itself as the “party of the common man [and woman].