There is something very different happening in the US presidential election. Yes, I realise I have said that pretty much every day since it began. This time I am talking about the issue of free trade. It has tended to be an issue that Republicans support and the Democrats oppose.
This time both of the presumptive candidates say they are against the latest free trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Donald Trump, in his usual fiery rhetoric, compared it to the raping of America.
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This is bound to further endear him to the female voters he has alienated to an unprecedented level. His statement, though, goes to the core of what his supporters believe. They see a rigged system that was changed to benefit the super-wealthy at their expense.
They see the North American Free Trade Agreement as the beginning of the end of the American dream which, at its heart, meant a middle class that could survive and that their children would have it better than they did.
That middle class was made up of diverse professions, but factory workers had a prominent place. In these towns with steel mills and textile plants, people could make decent money without much of an education.
They retired with pensions and did not have to worry about losing their jobs if they worked hard. There was stability, but that stability is gone. Trump is promising to bring it back.
I am currently in Ottawa covering the North American Leaders Summit. During the news conference with the leaders of Mexico, Canada and the United States, Trump’s comment dominated the questions and answers.
The leaders of Canada and Mexico did their best to be diplomatic. They talked about how the relationship between the countries will thrive regardless of who holds the highest office. US President Barack Obama was a bit more blunt.
His message – those days are over and they will never return. He says the global economy is here to stay and everyone just needs to figure out how to thrive in that environment.
He acknowledged that people have a right to be upset. They are suffering and income inequality has been made much worse because of globalisation. He said helping them is going to be complicated. Then he went on to imply that the simple solutions offered by Trump such as “tearing up agreements” simply won’t work. In fact, he says, it would cost the economy and workers more than anyone realises.
I thought I would look at polls to see just how much of an issue the North American Free Trade Agreement is for voters. In the most recent poll, 28 percent of people asked said NAFTA was good for America. The same number, 28 percent, said it was bad. The rest had no idea.
The president gave a spirited defence of free trade. He went to great lengths to explain the many factors that are working against many people in the global economy. He admitted it is complicated.
Compare that to Trump, who simply describes it as bad, horrible and disastrous. He can just “rip it up” and renegotiate. In American politics simple emotional arguments usually carry the day.
You can expect former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to give a similar explanation to the president. She helped to negotiate the trade pact but now says she is against it.
It seems highly unlikely that the president will be able to get Congress to sign off on the Trans-Pacific Trade deal before he leaves office. With both candidates saying they do not back it, it would seem to put the entire 12-country deal at risk.
That might help explain the reaction from Canadian MPs at the end of the president’s address to them. They kept chanting “Four more years, four more years”. If that was possible, their trade deals, current and future, would have a much more certain outlook.