Americas - Issue 93 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text

View from the campaign trail

What’s the deal?

By Sasha Issenberg

In the galloping horse race to determine which candidate’s promise was the biggest self-evident lie of the primary season, the smart money was always on Hillary Clinton’s insistence that she would fight trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was plainly the type of thing a moderate Democrat says when tacking left in a primary and then promptly forgets in a general election. Once she had beaten back a challenge from her left, one assumed, she would suddenly rediscover her voice as a pro-business internationalist.

It was a familiar arc. In 2008, when the Democratic primary campaign turned towards industrial states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, both Hillary and her opponent Barack Obama said they would seek to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) that Bill Clinton had introduced. (Candidates have reason to hedge on trade policy in the first caucus: Iowa farmers are often eager to open foreign markets for agricultural exports.) The disingenuousness of this was unmasked in real time. Even as Obama was calling Nafta a mistake, his top economic adviser privately told Canadian diplomats it was all opportunistic bluster. In a memo likely leaked by Canadian officials to the Associated Press, Austan Goolsbee was quoted in a visit to the Canadian Consulate in Chicago revealing that Obama’s anti-Nafta patter was “more reflective of political manoeuvring than policy”.

History has borne that out. Obama has shown himself to be devoted to lowering trade barriers as a matter of principle, and amid the gridlock has found it to be one area where congressional Republicans don’t interfere with his agenda. He has signed bilateral agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, and now considers the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership one of his greatest accomplishments as president. The secretary of state who negotiated the pact once appeared to feel the same way; while in office, Hillary said it “sets the gold standard in trade agreements”. She has backed off that enthusiasm only when angling to beat Bernie Sanders (who has voted against every trade pact that came before him as a member of Congress) with a Democratic electorate that has grown more suspicious of corporate priorities.

Yet Clinton’s expected swerve back to the centre has been complicated by the fact that Republicans appear ready to nominate a candidate who boasts of his “economic nationalism”. Donald Trump would be the party’s first presidential candidate since the Second World War who does not look favourably on global trade. “Nafta has just stripped our country of everything,” Trump has said, his rhetoric growing nearly indistinguishable from Sanders’ as he blames it on Bill. “That was his baby,” the Republican said in mid-March.

Trade has been a rare area of bipartisan consensus, where elites have shared a worldview of liberalisation even as restless populists in their ranks dissent from it. A Trump nomination stands to flip both parties’ views at once. If Hillary ends up competing with him for working-class voters in the industrial midwest, she will be unlikely to let Trump portray her as a free trader in her husband’s mould. She could end up trapped in her lie.

Trade deals on the White House agenda:

Trans-Pacific Partnership
The final version is likely to come back before Congress for final approval this year.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
Negotiations with the EU are still underway and not likely to be completed until the next president’s first term.

Obama has been negotiating a bilateral investment treaty that is a possible precursor to a full trade pact.

Cause and effect


The flow of Central American immigrants to the US shows little sign of slowing and concern is growing in Washington. The US has agreed to pay $750m (€670m) to the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador with the aim of reducing the push factors that drive migration, including spiralling murder rates driven by drug gangs and high levels of unemployment.

The US funds will be used to strengthen judicial institutions, improve security and boost the economy. However, many worry that the proposed reforms are unlikely to improve life for those who are leaving the region in droves.

Share on:






Go back: Contents



sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Atlantic Shift