An Urban's Rural View

The Charge? "Screaming and Yelling." The Plea? Guilty

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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In my previous post, (…), I noted the lobbying campaign by ag interests to save the North American Free Trade Agreement from repeated Trump administration threats to scuttle it. Apparently, someone else noted this campaign, too -- Trump's Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross.

Commenting to The Wall Street Journal on the administration's efforts to renegotiate NAFTA, Ross complained that what he called the "screaming and yelling" by agriculture "makes the negotiations harder (…)." He's right that the campaign undermines the administration's negotiating strategy. What he seems not to realize is that the "screaming and yelling" is both inevitable and proof of the flaws in the administration's NAFTA negotiating strategy.

That strategy comes across as a takeoff on the famous scene from Blazing Saddles in which the black sheriff, surrounded by townspeople pointing guns at him, threatens to shoot himself if anyone makes a move. The administration is threatening to blow up NAFTA, and if you point out that NAFTA benefits many Americans, including ag exporters, administration officials suggest they don't really intend to undo it. Canada and Mexico will meet our demands because "they have more to lose" from the agreement's destruction. The threat to withdraw from the deal is "leverage."

This may be the way negotiations work in the worlds of big real-estate deals and bankruptcy workouts that Trump and Ross used to inhabit. It's a less productive strategy for negotiations between nations, where the negotiators have political constituencies to please.

Reelection is every politician's top priority. Canada and Mexico may indeed have more to lose if NAFTA collapses, but caving to foreign pressure is a good way to lose elections. Some of what the Trump negotiators are demanding would take away what Canadians and Mexicans treasure most in the agreement. It won't be shocking, then, if the Canadian and Mexican negotiators refuse to back down and call the Trump team's bluff.

And now the Trump team is rediscovering they have political constituencies of their own to worry about -- like those screamers and yellers in agriculture, whose entreaties to save NAFTA give the Canadians and Mexicans more reasons to hope the U.S. is bluffing.

The screaming and yelling should not surprise Ross. It's a fact of political life, however inconvenient for negotiators of international deals, that interest groups make noise when their interests are threatened. It is, to borrow a line from a television commercial for car insurance, what they do. The administration might argue that interest-group politics are part of the swamp they came to Washington to drain. Maybe, but if it is, they'll find it's the hardest part.

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Robert McQuaid
12/23/2017 | 11:46 AM CST
its a sure thing Canada will cave in
Urban Lehner
11/24/2017 | 2:47 PM CST
Thanks for the comments. Regarding the farm vote, one question for the future will be which party's Congressional candidates will be able to convince farmers and ranchers they'll support trade deals that benefit agricultural exporters. The executive branch negotiates deals but Congress has to approve them. Indeed, I've seen speculation that because Congress passed a NAFTA law as well as approving the treaty, there could be lawsuits claiming Trump exceeded his authority if he pulls the U.S. out of NAFTA. Something to watch.
11/24/2017 | 12:46 PM CST
And Wilbur Ross also called ag just another "special" interest group. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights bill in 1964 he said he was giving the South to the Republicans for a generation. Let's hope Trump does not do enough damage to ag. that he gives the farm vote to Democrats for a generation
11/22/2017 | 9:02 AM CST
thanks for the great commentary Urban.. Now get your butt to DC and scream and yell for us!