Expect Trump to hammer Clinton every day until November for her husband's decision to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement into law -- as if Republicans haven't been the party that staunchly supports free trade deals like NAFTA.

This quote from CNN exemplifies why there's confusion. It was under a Liberal presidency that the NAFTA was enacted but I hear a lot of Democrats burn it as the act that Republicans "staunchly support". But then top GOP officials have been heard burning NAFTA and claiming that it's Clinton's fault for the agreement to exist. It's confusing.

To clarify: I'm not asking whether the North American Free Trade Agreement is good or bad, I'm just asking which party actually supports it and why do they keep blaming the other party for its existence?

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    Examine your premise: there is often a vast difference between the title given to the act, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, and what results from its execution. May 5, 2016 at 17:00
  • @DrunkCynic such as?
    – 8protons
    May 5, 2016 at 17:09
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    I think @DrunkCynic makes a good point. Is this question about NAFTA specifically, a compromise agreement among multiple parties, or the idea of free trade vs. protectionism broadly? People can be against NAFTA because they think free trade is bad, or they can be against NAFTA because they see cronyism in the specifics or because they think it didn't go far enough to promote free trade.
    – lazarusL
    May 5, 2016 at 18:07

4 Answers 4


Free trade has, until recently, been a part of what has been known as the "Washington Consensus." While the Washington Consensus itself refers to the position that development is fostered by pro-free trade positions, in general people 'within the beltway' were in favor of free trade, regardless of party.

That is not to say that NAFTA was uncontroversial. Most notably, Ross Perot—the Donald Trump of his era—ran primarily in opposition to NAFTA, and he drew support primarily from Republican voters. Likewise, both parties had anti-NAFTA elements.

A look at the roll call votes in the House and in the Senate show how divided the parties were. Republicans were generally more supportive both historically, at the time and currently of free trade, but the support was far from uniform. In the senate 48% of Democratic senators supported the bill, with the remainder opposed and one not voting, while 79% of Republican Senators supported the bill. On the House side, 39.5% of the Democratic members voted for NAFTA, while 75% of Republican members supported the implementation bill. The sole independent, Bernie Sanders, voted against.

Of note, the Senate did not have the votes to override the President, Bill Clinton, and so his support was crucial to passage. Furthermore, neither party had enough support internally to pass the bill without the other's support. At the time the Democrats controlled both houses, too.

In the end, neither party owns NAFTA alone, which partly explains its resilience. The Democrats thoroughly controlled government, and NAFTA would neither have been negotiated nor passed without the leadership's support. However, had the Republicans not been as enthusiastic in their support, the Democrats could not have overcome weakness in their coalition to pass the bill alone.

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    In all the description of who did what, George Bush's role in negotiating the agreement should be as important as Bill Clinton's support for it after becoming president. Although Ross Perot's comment about "a giant sucking sound" made for a memorable quote, he did not run primarily in opposition to NAFTA. His primary target was the budget deficit.
    – Readin
    May 5, 2016 at 3:29

It's understandable to be confused. Trump's candidacy represents a shake-up in Republican politics. Before Trump, Republicans were generally seen as the party of free enterprise and free trade. There were certain exceptions to this, so called paleoconservatives like Pat Buchannan have always been in favor of protectionism. In recent history, however, paleoconservatives have been a minority. Paul Ryan has been a stalwart defender of free trading saying:

“The thing about trade is, it can feel like a competition, where there’s always a winner and always a loser,” the former vice-presidential candidate said in what was billed as his first major trade speech since taking the helm of the House Ways and Means Committee in January. “But really, it’s more like a collaboration because both sides succeed. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. More trade means more people from every country, buying, selling, investing, creating — all working together to build a better world.”

John Boehner defended free trade saying:

“The most important thing we can do for our workers – the best in the world – is remove obstacles in their way, and that’s what we’ve done today. After the president signs this bill into law, America will take the next steps towards more free trade, which means more jobs, better pay, and more opportunities for our workers, farmers, and small businesses."

George W. Bush defended NAFTA saying:

Now is not the time to renegotiate NAFTA or walk away from NAFTA," Bush said. "Now is the time to make it work better for all our people. And now is the time to reduce trade barriers worldwide."

Newt Gingrich helped pass NAFTA. Even Ronald Regan, a hero to the recent republican party, was a defender of free trade saying:

It's sometimes said that if you put three economists together in a room and ask them a question, you're liable to get more than three answers. It's true, economists don't often agree. But there is one issue on which almost all responsible economists, whatever their political persuasion, are unanimous. They agree that free and fair trade brings growth and opportunity and creates jobs. And they all warn that high trade barriers, what is often called protectionism, undermines economic growth and destroys jobs. I don't call it protectionism; I call it destructionism.

So if Donald Trump does choose to attack Hillary Clinton on Free Trade, then he's breaking with a large number of Republicans in recent years.

  • he has already come out against free trade acts -- he says they rob the nation of wealth distribution and cause concentration towards only the banking class thus leaving the worker without a job. The 'republicans' are in open rebellion against their party. The base no longer wants them. May 5, 2016 at 18:38

This is a complicated question that does not have a simple answer.

From a historical vantage point, the Democrats have pretty much always supported Free Trade, at least since the 1820s (when the modern party was founded under Andrew Jackson). The Jefferson administration embargoed European goods to prevent conflict during the Napoleonic Wars; this ultimately failed and the U.S. got pulled into its first quagmire, the War of 1812. The Jacksonian Democrats tended to be dominated by Southerners and immigrants prior to the Civil War, and typically wanted low tariffs to make it easier to import European goods. Whereas the Whig Party and early Republican Party typically wanted protectionist tariffs to help boost Northern industrialists.

After the Civil War, the Democrats generally still supported free trade. Although since the 1970s or so, this enthusiasm has definitely worn down due to the influence of organized labor and blue collar voters who often see free trade as a threat to their own livelihood.

The Republicans typically supported tariffs until after the Second World War, when a new spirit of internationalism (including both moderates and neoconservatives) took hold in the GOP.

Here is what the most recent party platforms say:

Democratic Party 2012:

President Obama and the Democratic Party know that America has the best workers and businesses in the world. If the playing field is level, Americans will be able to compete against every other country on Earth. Over the last four years, we have made historic progress toward the goal of doubling our exports by 2015. We have taken steps to open new markets to American products, while ensuring that other countries play by the same rules. President Obama signed into law new trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama that will support tens of thousands of private-sector jobs, but not before he strengthened these agreements on behalf of American workers and businesses. We remain committed to finding more markets for American-made goods—including using the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the United States and eight countries in the Asia-Pacific, one of the most dynamic regions in the world—while ensuring that workers' rights and environmental standards are upheld, and fighting against unfair trade practices. We expanded and reformed assistance for trade-affected workers, and we demanded renewal of that help alongside new trade agreements.

Republican Party 2012:

International trade is crucial for our economy. It means more American jobs, higher wages, and a better standard of living. Every $1 billion in additional U.S. exports means another 5,000 jobs here at home. The Free Trade Agreements negotiated with friendly democracies since President Reagan’s trailblazing pact with Israel in 1985 facilitated the creation of nearly ten million jobs supported by our exports. That record makes all the more deplorable the current Administration’s slowness in completing agreements begun by its predecessor and its failure to pursue any new trade agreements with friendly nations.

This worldwide explosion of trade has had a downside, however, as some governments have used a variety of unfair means to limit American access to their markets while stealing our designs, patents, brands, know-how, and technology-the “intellectual property” that drives innovation. The chief offender is China, which has built up its economy in part by piggybacking onto Western technological advances, manipulates its currency to the disadvantage of American exporters, excludes American products from government purchases, subsidizes Chinese companies to give them a commercial advantage, and invents regulations and standards designed to keep out foreign competition. The current Administration’s way of dealing with all these violations of world trade standards has been a virtual surrender.

As you can see, both party platforms express a mix of support for free trade with some reservations related to specific problems. For example, the Democrats are worried about unfair competition from low-wage countries, and the Republicans are worried about China.

This reflects, as an earlier response noted, that free trade is generally a Washington "Establishment" issue, that many ordinary Americans feel ambivalent about. Because both the Democrats and Republicans are both "big tent" parties, their platforms represent a compromise between "insiders" and "outsiders."


The Libertarian Party supports the Free Trade Act.


3.4 Free Trade and Migration

We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade. Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders. However, we support control over the entry into our country of foreign nationals who pose a credible threat to security, health or property.

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