- - Thursday, June 30, 2016

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is starting his own trade war — with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with President Obama, with many in his own party. They are shocked that Mr. Trump would even consider scrapping NAFTA if our trading partners refuse to renegotiate its terms. His renegade approach is causing panic among free trade supporters who are satisfied with the status quo.

But it just might be the critics who are missing the point on trade — that tougher, fairer deals benefit America and should drive our trade strategy.

On Wednesday Mr. Trump tweeted: “Why would the [Chamber] be upset by the fact that I want to negotiate better and stronger trade deals or that I want penalties for cheaters?”

One would think the nation’s biggest business lobby would have no problem with that, yet the Chamber tweeted back: “Even under best-case scenario, Trump’s tariffs would strip us of at least 3.5 million jobs.”

Strangely, the Chamber did not criticize presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who is also seeking to renegotiate trade deals. Maybe Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump agree on trade policy more than they disagree.

But shouldn’t the United States be taking another long, hard look at a trade deal like NAFTA 20 years after its ratification? In those two decades, our workforce, industries and technology have all evolved, with major implications for the economy. The pre-NAFTA U.S. trade surplus with Mexico has been converted into a bilateral trade deficit that topped $58 billion in 2015.

NAFTA may not be, in Mr. Trump’s words, the “worst trade deal in the history of this country,” but I agree that the trade deal with Mexico and Canada should include stronger protections for the American worker, along with updated intellectual property, environmental and labor provisions. While NAFTA has created millions of U.S. jobs, over 600,000 American workers have been displaced, and many industries that stayed in the U.S. had to reduce wages to remain competitive with low-wage rivals overseas.

The environmental and labor provisions included in the original NAFTA agreement were not strong enough to protect workers, especially Mexican workers who have been exploited. NAFTA expanded the maquiladora program, wherein companies employ Mexican workers along the border who had no health benefits or labor rights.

Even then-Sen. Obama promised in 2008 to “fix” NAFTA to benefit American workers. It’s seven years later, and Mr. Obama has not only failed to renegotiate the treaty, but he instead blasted Mr. Trump during this week’s “Three Amigos” summit in Ottawa, standing alongside the leaders of Mexico and Canada.

“The amount of disruption involved would be enormous” if the United States would withdraw from NAFTA, our president lectured at one point. Mr. Obama has clearly drunk the globalization Kool-Aid, but American workers are not sharing a glass anymore. They don’t see their standard of living improving, their wages remain stagnant, the middle class has been ravaged, and local plants and businesses are closing and moving abroad.

Economists say they fear Mr. Trump’s proposed tariffs will lead to economic recession, but President Reagan in 1987 resorted to tariffs after Japan dumped its products here and blocked U.S. goods from its own markets. Reagan said at the time he acted to protect the principles of “free and fair trade.”

Eventually, Reagan eased the trade sanctions after Tokyo ceased the dumping of products. Free trade needs to go both ways.

National Association of Manufacturers President Jay Timmons has a point when he argues that “Donald Trump should understand 40 percent of [U.S.] manufacturing jobs are related to exports. We need more exports — not less.”

Yes, we need more exports, but when other nations close their economies and manipulate their currencies, doing nothing is not an option.

I would bet that if Mr. Trump wins in November, the United States will remain in NAFTA. But our trading partners will be on notice that the new president will fight for the American worker and that the status quo on trade is unacceptable. Free trade Republicans and business groups like the Chamber can agree that keeping “America first” on trade need not put our economy at risk.

Instead of being insulted, Mr. Trump should be commended for bringing the trade issue to the forefront. He understands that many American workers have been left behind, and they need an advocate to guide them through this complex global economy.

Mercedes Schlapp is a Fox News contributor, co-founder of Cove Strategies and former White House director of specialty media under President George W. Bush.

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