Clinton, Trump and trade: The curious case of the Democrat attack dogs that didn't bark

Speaker after speaker at the Democratic convention condemned Donald Trump — but not even Bill Clinton, who fathered NAFTA, found fault with Trump's pledge to rip it up. Ditto, Hillary Clinton. This doesn't bode well for Canada.

Why didn't the Democrats go after Trump on trade? Because they agree with him

During her convention speech Thursday night, Democrat Hillary Clinton attacked her Republican rival Donald Trump for what she sees as his many faults, with one notable exception: his protectionism. (Associated Press photos)

In a creepy tale of murder on a misty moor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tells how the great Sherlock Holmes spotted a vital clue.

Holmes advises a Scotland Yard detective to consider "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

The detective protests that, "the dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That," Holmes responds, "was the curious incident."

All quiet on the NAFTA front

It is, of course, a well-worn tale. Even so, a great many detectives are analysing Hillary Clinton's convention speech without mentioning what didn't happen.

Lord knows, Clinton didn't miss much in her indictment of her rival, Donald Trump. But she never even mentioned one of the gravest sins attributed to him by her friends on Wall Street, by economists and by trade experts in both parties: his protectionism.
Trump says NAFTA is a terrible trade agreement that he wouldn't hesitate to scrap. (Reuters)

Trump has certainly gone after Clinton as a closet free-trader, saying she endorsed the proposed transpacific trade agreement as secretary of state, and has since flip-flopped insincerely to grub for votes.

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The Republican nominee also points the finger at Bill Clinton, who signed NAFTA as president in 1993. By contrast, Trump insists he will rip it up if Canada and Mexico don't agree to his terms.

"I would pull out of NAFTA in a split second," Trump says. "It's the worst trade deal ever signed in the history of this country and one of the worst trade deals ever signed anywhere in the world. NAFTA is a disaster."

It depends what you mean by 'disaster'

Trump is correct, if "disaster" means a boom in trade for the U.S. and for its partners. In NAFTA's first twenty years, the U.S. added 30 million new jobs and its exports to Canada tripled to $300 billion. Canada's exports to the U.S. grew just as rapidly, from $111 billion to $346 billion.

Not all of that is NAFTA's doing — but much of it surely is. Which makes any plan to rip up NAFTA a very big deal and bigger still when both the U.S. political parties are running it down.

That, of course, is why, despite a parade of Democrats who stepped up in Philadelphia to condemn Trump, not one dog barked about his threat to trash NAFTA.

On the contrary. Never mind that NAFTA was a bipartisan project from the start — initiated by the first president Bush and ratified by Bill Clinton with big majorities in both Houses. Now, hostility to NAFTA — indeed, hostility to free trade in general — unites the warring parties.

Eager to placate the Bernie Sanders crowd, and with her husband beaming from the floor, Hillary Clinton urged the anti-free-traders to see her as their champion.
Many supporters of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are suspicious of Clinton's claims that she'll fight unfair trade deals. (Reuters)

"If you believe that we should say 'no' to unfair trade deals," she cried, "that we should stand up to China … that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and homegrown manufacturers … join us!"

Cynics will say — and Trump does say — don't believe her. The Bernie supporters, too, have their doubts. After all, in 2008, Barack Obama also ran on a promise to renegotiate NAFTA — but forgot about it once elected.

Flip, flop and flip again?

Canadians have known this game for even longer: Jean Chrétien swore to renegotiate it during the 1993 campaign, but somehow never got around to it.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, seen golfing with former U.S. president Bill Clinton in 2000, didn't keep his 1993 campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

So it's a fine old tradition to beat up on NAFTA when on the hustings, but not in office. Will Hillary Clinton follow the pattern? Perhaps. But it won't be easy to flip, flop and flip again while damning Trump as a phoney who'll say anything to get elected.

So even Sherlock Holmes might be unsure about how this ends. He did deductions about the past, after all, not predictions about the future.

But he'd definitely notice when the dogs should be barking, and don't.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.