In 1979, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign saying, “A developing closeness among Canada, Mexico and the United States—a North American accord—would permit achievement of that potential in each country beyond that which I believe any of them—strong as they are—could accomplish in the absence of such cooperation.
“In fact, the key to our own future security may lie in both Mexico and Canada becoming much stronger countries than they are today,” he said.
Reagan’s dream of a strong trade deal as part of an alliance with America’s nearest neighbors started to become a reality when his successors, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, successfully negotiated and implemented the North American Free Trade Agreement, better known as NAFTA.
In 1993, Reagan wrote a piece supporting the trade deal in the Wall Street Journal titled “Tear Down This Trade Wall,” in which he said, “The reason for a free-trade agreement is simple: Throughout history, whenever and wherever trade barriers have been lowered, the participating economies have flourished.
“Through NAFTA, we will most certainly see a boost to the economic vitality of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It will help mature and expand the North American economy, keeping us globally competitive,” he wrote.
Fortunately, conservatives in Congress still understand the benefits of trade.
Every freshman Republican congressman recently signed onto a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer voicing their support for North American free trade: “We are also keenly aware of the potential for damage to U.S. farmers, businesses, manufacturers, service providers, and workers if long-standing agreements are suddenly vacated.
“Canada and Mexico are our largest export markets, and our $3.5 billion in daily trade with these two countries supports 14 million American jobs,” the letter said.
The lessons House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, described when he spoke in favor of NAFTA at The Heritage Foundation in 1993 remain true today: “Conservatives respect the lessons of history. One of these lessons is that free trade leads to a prosperous world.
He went on: “Another is that protectionism leads to poverty… . Conservatives understand that if this country abandons free trade and free markets, it could indeed become a second-rate power.”
Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on support for trade, though.
According to President John F. Kennedy, “ … we cannot protect our economy by stagnating behind tariff walls, but that the best protection possible is a mutual lowering of tariff barriers among friendly nations so that all may benefit from a free flow of goods.”
Clinton said this about NAFTA:
[T]his fight is not a traditional fight between Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives. It is right at the center of the effort that we’re making in America to define what the future is going to be about.
And so there are differences. But if you strip away the differences, it is clear that most of the people that oppose this pact are rooted in the fears and insecurities that are legitimately gripping the great American middle class.
It is no use to deny that these fears and insecurities exist. It is no use denying that many of our people have lost in the battle for change. But it is a great mistake to think that NAFTA will make it worse.
Every single, solitary thing you hear people talk about, that they’re worried about, can happen whether this trade agreement passes or not, and most of them will be made worse if it fails. And I can tell you, it will be better if it passes.
Today, people are still fighting about what the future is going to be about. Americans are sure to win if the outcome is a future based on freedom, including the freedom to trade.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal