One word stood out this week as President Donald Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, described an updated North American trade pact: “progressive.”
Also notable during a half-hour discussion about the agreement Lighthizer held with a group of reporters: He was complimentary of the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with Asian countries from which Trump withdrew. He even admitted the new North American agreement is “built on” many aspects of TPP.
No stranger to Washington and the politics of trade, Lighthizer called the new trade deal’s labor provisions “more progressive” than those in the North American Free Trade Agreement — a pact negotiated by the pro-free trade administration of Republican George Bush and lobbied for and pushed over the congressional finish line by his successor, Democratic President Bill Clinton.
The usage was likely no accident. Democratic members had made labor provisions more beneficial to U.S. workers a requirement to win their support — and Trump’s trade point man says that was delivered.
After Canada announced late Sunday night it would join what had been a U.S.-Mexico deal, Trump and his top aides wasted little time in using the three-way pact to set a possible election-year trap for Democrats — at least when they weren’t using it to send a warning to China, with whom they are in an increasingly intractable trade war.
In short, the message from the White House to voters has been this: The deal was negotiated with members of both parties in mind, so if a Democratic incumbent or candidate opposes it, that person is putting negative feelings about the president over U.S. workers, consumers and businesses.
“I think the Democrats are going to like the trade [deal]. They already do,” Trump said Tuesday as he left the White House for events in Pennsylvania and Mississippi. “A lot of them have already come out and said very positive things. We seem to have very strong support for the trade deal. It covers just about everybody.”
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Hours earlier, his chief economic adviser, Lawrence Kudlow, told reporters the new North American pact is “stronger” than the early 1990s-era NAFTA. He then explained why, mentioning constituencies that long voted Democratic before some among their ranks voted for Trump in 2016.
“We are helping our manufacturing workers, blue-collar workers, [and] we broke through on dairy ... wheat and some other grains,” Kudlow said. “If the Democrats want to help working folks, they’ll go with this deal.”
Democrats are hoping to win back support from the manufacturing, farming and other blue-collar sectors when voters head to the polls in just five weeks to decide which party will control the House and Senate next year.
But Trump and White House officials are eager to paint any Democrat who voices concerns about the deal as a part of a supposed “radical,” elite left wing of the party, one he has railed against since jumping into the 2016 presidential race.
“It’s going to produce jobs, and companies aren’t going to be leaving and firing everybody and making products and sending [them] back into the United States,” Trump told a campaign rally crowd Monday night in Johnson City, Tennessee, where he stumped for Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is running against former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen for an open Senate seat.
“But radical Democrats in Congress are trying very hard to erase everything that we’ve achieved,” he said. “A Democrat takeover of Congress will plunge our country into gridlock and chaos and take away all of the wealth that you’ve earned over the last 20 months.”
Trump hit the road again Tuesday, in part to try selling the trade pact to the American people. Inside the West Wing, there is a sense of urgency to gin up public support because, in Lighthizer’s words, Team Trump has “got one shot” to secure such a massive and complex three-way agreement.
Back in Washington, his top aides were busy planting seeds that Democratic incumbents have little reason to oppose it. In fact, White House officials said Democrats had input into its contents.
“We consulted with them,” Kudlow said of Democratic lawmakers. “There’s a lot in here for both sides. Whether that works out, I don’t know. It’s a crazy time.”
After Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York issued a statement applauding Trump for striking a deal with both Mexico and Canada to revise NAFTA, more and more Democrats sounded open to voting for it next year when it hits the House and Senate floors for make-or-break votes.
For instance, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Tuesday said she is “encouraged to see some positive improvements that will help New Hampshire’s dairy farmers and small businesses,” though she also called on Trump to “de-escalate the trade war” with U.S. friends and foes while also ending his steel and aluminum tariffs.
But Brown, always a NAFTA skeptic, also praised the revised agreement while saying he would scour it for worker protections.
“My number one priority is to stop Ohio jobs from moving overseas, and that’s what I’ll be looking for as I carefully review the text. We still have more work ahead of us before anything is final, and I will continue working with the administration as we craft legislation needed to implement an updated NAFTA,” Brown said in a statement.
Meantime, Trump’s top aides are busily using the unity in North America to send a warning to China.
“I think the … continent as a whole now stands united against what I’m going to call unfair trading practices by ‘you know who,’” Kudlow said, referring to a country that “starts with a ‘C’ and ends with an ‘A.’” (Kudlow meant China, of course, although there are other countries that start with “C” and end with “A,” such as Canada and Cambodia.)
White House officials are eager for anything that would give them some leverage over Beijing. Several top West Wing trade officials have acknowledged in recent weeks that despite round after round of trade talks, Chinese officials have yet to alter what they say are Beijing’s “unfair” tactics.
“Honestly,” Kudlow said, “I think it sends a signal to China that we are acting as one — and I think that’s very good.”