Why Elizabeth Warren came around on Trump’s trade deal

Progressives are split on the reworked agreement. Warren says she's trying to be "practical."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns Thursday in Concord, New Hampshire. Cheryl Senter / AP

Sen. Elizabeth Warren used to be a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s efforts to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As recently as this past summer, Warren said Trump’s proposal wouldn’t live up to its promise. While the Massachusetts Democrat agreed that NAFTA had left working-class Americans out to dry, she didn’t think the replacement that had been bargained by the Republican administration with Canada and Mexico would improve the situation.

“It won’t stop outsourcing, it won’t raise wages, and it won’t create jobs,” Warren said during a November 2018 foreign policy speech, deriding the yet-to-be-ratified agreement at the time as “NAFTA 2.0.”


A little over 13 months and a few favorable revisions later, Warren has changed her mind.

Last Friday, she told WBZ that she plans to vote for the renegotiated deal — now rebranded as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — in the Senate, after it was overwhelmingly approved by the Democrat-led House of Representatives last month.

“I want to be practical on the trade deal,” Warren said during an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“If we can get some improvement for our farmers who are suffering, if we can get some improvement in enforcement for our workers, then I want to see us do that,” she added.


What changed? According to Warren, the deal itself.

As she outlined in her 2018 speech, the populist senator was concerned that the original agreement lacked enforcement mechanisms for the improved labor standards it included. She also said its “handouts” to pharmaceutical companies would undercut efforts to reduce drug prices and it lacked environmental standards to disincentivize American companies from moving to Mexico where they would be allowed to pollute more.

According to The New York Times, those three concerns were also at the center of discussions between House Democrats and Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, who has sought bipartisan support for the deal. And after six months of negotiations, Democrats were able to secure enough concessions to give it to him; the deal even earned support from the AFL-CIO, which very rarely backs international trade deals.


Somewhat ironically, it was Republican lawmakers and free trade groups that were left grumbling, the Times reported after the pact passed the House last month, 385 to 41. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, reportedly even told Democratic colleagues, “We ate their lunch.”

During her “Meet the Press” interview, Warren specifically credited two Democrats, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, for including bolstered enforcement of labor standards. The deal includes a “rapid-response” mechanism that allows independent experts to do on-site inspections to make sure all three countries are abiding by the rules.

Warren also credited Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, another Democrat, for the removal of a controversial provision that would have allowed pharmaceutical companies to protect certain drugs for 10 years from competition from generic — and presumably cheaper — alternatives.


The revised USMCA also includes stronger environmental rules, according to House Democrats (though a number of environmental groups oppose the deal on the grounds that it doesn’t do enough to combat climate change).

All in all, Warren said Sunday that the new USMCA amounts to “a very different deal than we had a year ago.”

Still, progressive Democrats are split on the trade agreement.

Thirty-eight House Democrats — including Massachusetts Reps. Jim McGovern, Joe Kennedy III, and Ayanna Pressley — ultimately voted against it. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, a fellow Democratic presidential candidate and Warren’s ideological ally, also remains opposed to the USMCA. Having voted against NAFTA as a congressman in the 1990s, the Vermont senator is planning to vote against the reworked deal, despite “modest” improvements.


“At the end of the day, in my view, it is not going to stop outsourcing,” Sanders said during the most recent Democratic primary debate last month. “It is not going to stop corporations from moving to Mexico, where manufacturing workers make less than $2 an hour.”

According to CNN, he recently told voters in New Hampshire that the USMCA didn’t do enough to address the issue of companies exporting “pollution and carbon emissions to other countries.”

For her part, Warren agrees that the deal could be better.

“Look, this is not a great arrangement,” she said on “Meet the Press.” “It’s an improvement over where NAFTA stands right now.”


Warren added that Trump deserves blame for digging American workers deeper into a hole, noting how Trump’s trade war with China has hurt farmers in the United States. She said the USMCA would at least offer them “some help.”

As president, Warren added that she would negotiate trade deals that go further. In her 2018 speech, Warren said the United States should use foreign countries’ desire to access American markets as leverage to “set new rules for global capitalism” prioritizing American workers over multinational corporations. And in a plan released in July by her presidential campaign, Warren called for a slate of enforcement measures to ensure the United States’ trade partners improve their labor, environmental, and human rights standards.


But even if the USMCA doesn’t go as far as she’d like, Warren says she’ll be pragmatic when it comes up for a ratification vote in the Senate.

“We should negotiate for a better deal, not just to back out of this box,” she said Sunday. “But we should also provide relief right now to the farmers who are suffering, to the workers who are suffering. That’s how I see it.”

Jump To Comments


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com