It’s Not Just TPP. Can a President Kill NAFTA? Al Gore Thought So. Hillary Clinton Too.

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. Originally published at at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama discuss NAFTA in the 2008 Cleveland debate.

Moderator Tim Russert: Al Gore said the following: “If you don’t like NAFTA and what it’s done, we can get out of it in six months.” … Will you, as president, say we are out of NAFTA in six months?

Clinton: I have said that I will renegotiate NAFTA, so obviously, you’d have to say to Canada and Mexico that that’s exactly what we’re going to do. . . . Yes, I am serious. . . . 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. . . .

Cleveland debate, February 26, 2008

The big news is Bernie Sanders’ announcement that as president he will reject TPP, the “job-killing trade deal” that Barack Obama, many Republicans and the money wing of the Democratic Party is so eager to see passed.

From a Sanders campaign press release:

Sanders Vows to Reject Job-Killing Trade Deal

As the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact was signed by the United States and 11 other countries, Bernie Sanders promised to “fundamentally rewrite our trade policies to benefit working families, not just the CEOs of large, multinational corporations.”

Sanders has opposed the Pacific trade deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement and permanent normal trade relations with China since day one. The North American Free Trade Agreement led to the loss of 700,000 jobs. The trade deal with China led to the loss of 3.2 million jobs. And since 2001, nearly 60,000 manufacturing plants have been shut down and 4.7 million jobs have been lost. …

“As your president, not only will I make sure that the TPP does not get implemented, I will not send any trade deal to Congress that will make it easier for corporations to outsource American jobs overseas,” Sanders said.

If I read this right, the following is true. If Sanders is president, TPP is dead, whether it passes Congress or not. Something to think about — and something for the signers of TPP to think about, especially those leaders who put their careers on the line with their own countries’ compromises. All for naught?

What About NAFTA? Can We Really “Get Out In Six Monthsu”?

But there’s more than just the news of the potential death of TPP at the hand of a President Sanders. One obvious question is — What about Ms. Clinton? Will she make the same statement? If I were the Sanders campaign, I’d ask that again and again.

But there’s more. It turns out that according to Al Gore in his debate with Ross Perot, we can get out of NAFTA “in six months” if the president wants to. Let that sink in, in light of what Sanders just said. I’d be overjoyed if Sanders would confirm this and promise to do that as well.

But on the Clinton side, there were some very specific promises made in the 2008 campaign, and specifically during the February debate in Cleveland moderated by Tim Russert. Those promises are so specific that they should be revisited — and reverified. Another something that the Sanders camp could easily do.

Here’s what happened. During the debate in Cleveland, candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama discussed what they would do to “fix” NAFTA. Here’s the relevant section from the transcript. Note the introduction and Al Gore’s comment. I’m trimming and emphasizing what I think is key in this. Ellipses and emphasis mine. Hyphens are part of the transcript:

MR. RUSSERT: I want to ask you both about NAFTA because the record, I think, is clear. … Senator Clinton. Senator Obama said that you did say in 2004 that on balance NAFTA has been good for New York and America. You did say that. … You said in ’96 it was proving its worth as free and fair trade. You said that — in 2000 — it was a good idea that took political courage. So your record is pretty clear.

Based on that, and which you’re now expressing your discomfort with it, in the debate that Al Gore had with Ross Perot, Al Gore said the following: “If you don’t like NAFTA and what it’s done, we can get out of it in six months.[“]

The president can say to Canada and Mexico, we are out. This has not been a good agreement.” Will U.S. president say we are out of NAFTA in six months?

SEN. CLINTON: I have said that I will renegotiate NAFTA, so obviously, you’d have to say to Canada and Mexico that that’s exactly what we’re going to do. …

MR. RUSSERT: Just because — maybe Clinton —

SEN. CLINTON: Yes, I am serious.

MR. RUSSERT: You will get out. You will notify Mexico and Canada, NAFTA is gone in six months.

SEN. CLINTON: No, 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.

Then, after she pivots to Obama’s comments (fair enough in a debate), this:

SEN. CLINTON: … But let’s talk about what we’re going to do. It is not enough just to criticize NAFTA, which I have, and for some years now. I have put forward a very specific plan about what I would do, and it does include telling Canada and Mexico that we will opt out unless we renegotiate the core labor and environmental standards — not side agreements, but core agreements; that we will enhance the enforcement mechanism; and that we will have a very clear view of how we’re going to review NAFTA going forward to make sure it works, and we’re going to take out the ability of foreign companies to sue us because of what we do to protect our workers. …

MR. RUSSERT: But let me button this up. Absent the change that you’re suggesting, you are willing to opt out of NAFTA in six months?

SEN. CLINTON: I’m confident that as president, when I say we will opt out unless we renegotiate, we will be able to renegotiate.

This is an amazing exchange. You may want to read it a second time, just to be sure you read it right.

“Opting Out” of NAFTA

Two takeaways, I think, are apparent from this:

1. A president can opt out of NAFTA in six months, according to Al Gore, who really ought to know, since his administration negotiated it. Neither candidate in the above debate disputes that point, nor does the moderator.

2. This suggests obvious questions for Sanders and Clinton. Will you promise to opt out of NAFTA as soon as you take office? Or barring that, will you threaten to opt out to force renegotiation?

In particular, for Clinton, will you do the following, as promised?

  • “renegotiate the core labor and environmental standards — not side agreements, but core agreements,” and
  • “take out the ability of foreign companies to sue us.”

The second is a reference to the ISDS, or Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause, the “corporations can sue sovereign nations” provision that has people like Elizabeth Warren so exercised (see video below at about 3:15).

“A rigged process produces a rigged outcome.” Warren’s comments on ISDS, the ability of corporations to sue countries, starts at 3:15.

We’re well beyond generalities and vague beliefs with this. There’s plenty to get specific about. I urge the Clinton campaign to take up the challenge and affirm that she stands side by side with Sanders — for the American people and against TPP and NAFTA. After all, we know from the 2008 debate and her own recent comments that she understands these deals the same way Sanders does. The question is, what will she actually do?

The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has publicly said he expects a President Clinton to support TPP. This is her opportunity to prove him completely wrong. I hope she takes it.

Economic Justice and Racial Justice

One final word. A very large percentage of our racial justice problems starts with wealth and income inequality. To take an obvious example, you’d have to be blind not to see that racism helped create the Flint crisis. And you’d have to be blind not to see as well that the devastation of largely minority cities like Flint and Detroit have their roots in “job-killing trade deals” like NAFTA.

Put simply, without GATT, the WTO, NAFTA and similar agreements, would the American auto industry and all of its supply chain and service companies have been decimated and shipped to Asia? U.S. automakers have made a number of mistakes, but nothing was as devastating as the financial attraction to CEOs in all industries of doing almost all manufacturing abroad. Flint and Detroit lived by manufacturing, and were killed as viable cities by the loss of it.

I understand there will be a debate in Michigan, in particular, in Flint. If so, I’m glad to hear that. I hope, at some point in the discussion, NAFTA is mentioned as one of the great causes of the devastation that state has suffered.

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  • kimyo

    The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has publicly said he expects a President Clinton to support TPP. This is her opportunity to prove him completely wrong. I hope she takes it.

    a simply breathtaking fantasy. astonishing that anyone versed in clinton’s history could imagine she’d void nafta/tpp. she’s doing a cameron, dude. ‘renegotiations’, ‘concessions’, you’re reporting on a wwe match as if it’s the real thing.

  • Nick Smegg

    Very clear exposition by Sen Warren of ISDS and TPP (and therefore TTIP).

  • bostonTparty

    She’ll say and do what she’s paid to do. Just like all of them