Clinton wants it both ways on trade

John O'Neill

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wants it both ways on the divisive trade issue. During her recent appearance in Michigan, she criticized Republican nominee Donald Trump as an isolationist, while in the same stroke embracing an almost identical trade agenda.

Like Trump, Clinton promises to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and to continue her opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

Mrs. Clinton insisted in the speech that we must “finally make trade work for us, not against us.” That’s a lame distinction between her trade policy and that of Mr. Trump. Moreover, trade already works for us, and that goes for both NAFTA and TPP.

Compliments of NAFTA — which became effective in 1994 after having been pushed through Congress by Mrs. Clinton’s husband — exports to Mexico have increased. This is especially true of agricultural products, an industry vital to Michigan.

But contrary to the bipartisan protectionist rhetoric, NAFTA has also benefited auto workers in the U.S. Though there has been an export of auto production to Mexico, this phenomenon long preceded NAFTA. Moreover, what protectionists don’t acknowledge is the boom in exports of auto parts vital to the production in Mexico. It is this pattern of the global economy that a large domestic industry must have sound foreign investments to remain competitive on the home front.

The same argument can be made for TPP. And the argument is even more compelling. TPP includes twelve countries on both sides of the Pacific. It accounts for 40 percent of world trade, a chunk of commerce the U.S. cannot afford to pass up.

Most ironic about opposition to TPP is the constant concern over China protectionists (including both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump) invoke into the debate. Not only is China not part of TPP, but in the absence of U.S. participation in TPP, China is bound to fill the trade void with Pacific Rim countries desperate to do business with a large economy.

Another irony in the opposition to TPP are the objections to Japan being a member. Just as the export of production is not traceable to NAFTA, Japanese products in the U.S. market are not traceable to TPP (which in turn will only make Japan’s markets more open).

From a free trade perspective, the choice for president is distressing. Not that Mrs. Clinton will necessarily continue her opposition to NAFTA and TPP if elected president. She has already reversed herself on both agreements for political purposes and could well reverse herself again upon becoming president.

But it is unfortunate that Clinton has not taken a courageous position on trade in this year’s presidential campaign, the kind of courageous stand her husband took in both the 1992 and 1996 campaigns. The political expedience Clinton has garnered in her opposition to NAFTA and TPP will make it all the more difficult for her to chart a free trade path should her presidential ambitions be realized.

John O’Neill is an Allen Park based writer.