Sen. Flake Openly Resisting Trump on NAFTA as a Good Deal

(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn’t the only Republican office holder President Donald Trump has been agitating against – not by a long shot.

POLL: Most Vocal Republican Critics of Trump Are the Least Popular

Jeff Flake Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC)

One of them, at least by inference, is fighting back, in this case by pushing back against one of the policy positions most closely associated with this president.

Trump is known to be trying to recruit a primary opponent in 2018 for U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who was reluctant to support Trump’s candidacy last year and who disagrees with Trump on immigration policy. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who has aligned herself in support of the president, has already announced a challenge to Flake.

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But rather than shrink from the conflict, Flake is doubling down, without even mentioning Trump by name.

The issue is NAFTA – the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Trump has spent years excoriating the agreement, calling it “the single worst trade deal” the United States has ever made.

While Trump as president has backed away from his “kill NAFTA” stance in favor of calling for substantial renegotiation of its terms, he still quite clearly thinks the current agreement is a horrible deal and still is rhetorically its number-one enemy.

Enter Flake. He is promoting an ongoing initiative called NAFTA4AZ (NAFTA for Arizona) that in effect says Trump is dead wrong about NAFTA’s effects:

“NAFTA plays a critical role in supporting jobs, opportunity, and economic growth,” Flake said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. He added that NAFTA helps support jobs ina multitude of industries from dairy farmers to call center employees….[For example,] Mignonne Hollis with the Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation tweeted that ‘NAFTA and our trade partners in Mexico have allowed us to grow the aerospace industry in Southern Arizona, which is key to our economic development.’”

Flake also said that NAFTA not only helps provide foreign market for products made in Arizona, but helps keep prices low for ordinary American consumers as “parts [inexpensively] cross the border multiple times before they reach final assembly in the U.S.”

For years left wing groups and populist conservatives have argued that NAFTA has mostly harmed American interests, while free-market conservatives and business groups say just the opposite. (One free-market economist wrote last year that “tearing up NAFTA would be an economic and foreign-policy blunder of historic proportions.”) A study by the centrist-but-globalist Council on Foreign Relations explains why both sides might be right, depending on how one measures it:

[The] upsides of trade often escape notice, because while the costs are highly concentrated in specific industries like auto manufacturing, the benefits of a deal like NAFTA are distributed widely across society. Supporters of NAFTA estimate that some fourteen million jobs rely on trade with Canada and Mexico, while the nearly two hundred thousand export-related jobs created annually by the pact pay 15 to 20 percent more on average than the jobs that were lost.

(The same study, by the way, sums up the overall effect this way: “Most estimates conclude that the deal had a modest but positive impact on U.S. GDP of less than 0.5 percent, or a total addition of up to $80 billion dollars to the U.S. economy upon full implementation, or several billion dollars of added growth per year.”)

The cross-cutting arguments might be why Trump has backed away from his “terminate the agreement” stance. For example, Trump garnered lots of his support in last year’s presidential campaign from rural Americans, but farmers are among those most often in favor of NAFTA. Yett union workers, also a big source of Trump’s support, tend to oppose it.

PREVIOUSLY: Poll: Most Vocal Republican Critics of Trump Are the Least Popular

Still, as Trump seeks more middle ground that still pushes the idea that NAFTA has been an overall disaster, Sen. Flake, whose state borders Mexico, is “all in” for its benefits.

“If I wanted an easier path through the primary, then I would line up more with where the president is,” Flake said. “But I think if you’re an elected official, you’ve got to do what you know what’s right. It’ll be a tougher path than I could have had, would have had, but I think I’ll get there.”