The Democrats on NAFTA

Renegotiating NAFTA is just campaign talk.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Is renegotiating NAFTA just campaign talk?

David Frum: In The Importance of Being Earnest, one of Oscar Wilde's characters says to another, "I hope you are not merely pretending to be wicked while being secretly good. That would be hypocrisy."

And some of the Democrats got themselves into that problem in this campaign season [circa early to mid 2008] where they were telling large audiences of 10,000 people, "We hate trade, we hate NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], we need to destroy it"; while sending out their friends to quietly reassure investors, "I don't mean a word of it."

So we will find out whether their public speech or whether their private speech is a better guide to their action.

When Hillary Clinton talks about tearing up NAFTA, you have to listen with Hillary very carefully to what she's saying and to listen for the exact little words. When she said, "I don't want to add side agreements to NAFTA, but I want to reopen the main body," that sounded like a formula for destroying NAFTA.

In reality, the United States has the clout to impose side agreements on Canada and Mexico, but if you open up the main body of an agreement and start renegotiating it, that's going to take you forever; and book the suite at the Four Seasons at Cancun, you will be there for the next decade. So that was actually a way of avoiding action, not of calling for action.

But we have this pressure, which is we've lived through in the United States a decade of extraordinary increase in national wealth; relatively little of which, an increment of that national wealth, has reached Mr. and Mrs. America, ordinary people, the voters. And that is creating tremendous strains on the political system, that people feel the country's gotten richer and they don't understand why and they're looking for answers. So that does create an audience who offers destructive and irresponsible answers.

One of the things I deeply believe the way politics works is that it's the job of the voters to inform the people who would like to be their leaders what their problems are. And it is then the job of the people who would like to be the leaders to compete, to come up with responsible solutions to those problems.

And I have enough confidence in the way the system works to believe that the better ideas tend over time to win out, and the bad ideas to lose out. But there's always a temptation for people to try to see whether they can win an easy or an immediate victory by offering something that sounds plausible but won't work. So you always have the Ross Perot's and the Lou Dobbs', the snake oil salesmen, who offer a medicine, whether it's trade protection, whether it's some kind of direct government involvement in this or that phase of economic activity, that will do more harm than it will do good.

 

Recorded on: May 5 2008