In her first debate with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton delivered one of her more memorable one-liners when she quipped, “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.”
Debate rules be damned, Clinton’s supporters in the room cheered loudly, and the line quickly ricocheted across social media.
Indeed, Clinton was well prepared, especially compared to her blustery rival. Yet on one issue — trade — she seemed surprisingly caught off-guard.
Early on, when Clinton praised her husband’s economic record, Trump shot back that Bill Clinton had signed the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA, for short — which the GOP candidate called “the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.”
It was a serious charge, since Hillary has often embraced Bill’s business-friendly trade policies. So it was disappointing when the best response she could offer was, “Well, that’s your opinion.”
Trump’s not known for his factual precision, but worthier critics have tallied up NAFTA’s extensive failures since it became law two decades ago.
The first Clinton administration promised that NAFTA would create hundreds of thousands of jobs. In fact, the consumer rights group Public Citizen noted in a 2014 report, the deal killed a million U.S. jobs in its first decade alone, and created strong downward pressure on wages for what jobs remained.
Rust Belt states like Ohio and Michigan were especially devastated. Trade deals liquidated over half a million manufacturing jobs in those two states alone between 1994 and 2015. No wonder Trump mentioned the pair twice.
NAFTA also uprooted over a million Mexican workers, leading to an immigration crisis that seemed to pit low-wage Americans and low-wage Mexicans against each other. Meanwhile, it won big corporations some $360 million in judgments against public interest regulations like labor laws.
In short, deals like NAFTA accelerated the job losses, immigration tensions, and spiraling inequality that created the social rot Trump is exploiting today. Yet Clinton still defends the pact’s legacy.
Pressing his advantage, Trump turned to the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP — a 12-country trade pact negotiated by the Obama administration that critics have called “NAFTA on steroids.” Consumer groups and labor unions are lobbying hard against it.
And, as he courts blue-collar voters, so is Trump.
“You were totally in favor of it,” Trump accused Clinton — correctly. Though she denied it at the debate, Clinton once called the TPP “the gold standard in trade agreements,” even as rights groups raised serious concerns about the power it would give corporations over everything from drug prices to food safety laws.
Mysteriously, the former secretary of state changed her mind about the TPP during the Democratic primary, announcing last year that she could no longer support it. Had she become a skeptic of corporate-friendly trade deals, or was she buckling under pressure from Bernie Sanders, who’d been hammering away at the TPP for years?
Nothing Clinton said in the debate gives any clue. But when Trump promised to “renegotiate” NAFTA, Clinton refused to follow suit.
If she still supports NAFTA, though, how can anyone trust her to block “NAFTA on steroids”?
For many of Clinton’s supporters, it’s enough that she simply isn’t Donald Trump. But if she fends him off, she’ll need to think long and hard about whether deals like these have any place in the “broad-based, inclusive growth” she says she wants for our country.
If she gets it wrong, the social cancers of job loss and xenophobia will only continue to fester. And we may yet see a “Trump on steroids” rise from the ashes.