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Opinion Trudeau aims to influence the influencers during U.S. trip to save NAFTA

Good luck selling NAFTA in Chicago, Justin Trudeau. Another leader once tried to sell a trade deal here, but in the end nearly all the elected Chicago-area Democrats in Congress opposed it. That leader was Barack Obama.

Even the president from Chicago couldn't get close allies to back the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and in this blue-Democrat city, support for NAFTA is worse. When Mr. Trudeau visits Wednesday as he starts a three-city U.S. tour to lobby to save the trade deal, the political terrain will be hilly.

"Is he going to be a more effective salesman on the benefits of free trade than the previous U.S. president, who was a historical figure, who worked extensively to convince people, and failed?" asked Tom Bowen, a Chicago political consultant who advises Democrats. "I think that question answers itself."

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This will be Mr. Trudeau's 15th U.S. trip as Prime Minister, and saving NAFTA is again the chief goal. He's lobbying beyond Washington, – in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles – in a trip aimed at influencing the influencers – members of Congress, governors, mayors, business leaders and others who might tell President Donald Trump that it's dangerous to tear up the North American free-trade agreement.

It's a campaign with bi-partisan targets, starting in Democratic Chicago and ending with a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. – an attempt to underline for Republicans that an iconic hero of their party was a believer in free trade and an architect of a free-trade deal with Canada.

Mr. Trudeau can already claim the lobbying campaign has had some success. In recent months, U.S. business, farm groups, and politicians have been warning against killing NAFTA. That's not Canada's doing, but there's co-ordination. Last week 36 Republican senators wrote to Mr. Trump asking him to renegotiate NAFTA, not scrap it. Mr. Trump's rush to tear up NAFTA appears to have slowed.

But finding allies to warn Mr. Trump not to make any sudden moves to kill NAFTA is one thing. It's quite another to get U.S. politicians to fight for it. Would members of Congress try to stop Mr. Trump if he tried to withdraw? For that matter, if Mr. Trump does want to sign a NAFTA 2.0, would Congress approve it?

Canada's ambassador to the U.S., David MacNaughton, said this week that he's hoping for a deal within two months, because the uncertainty is discouraging investment. But convincing Congress to vote for a new NAFTA in an election year is a tall order.

Bruce Heyman, a Chicago Democrat who was U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2013 to 2017, said most politicians would rather NAFTA not become an election issue. Among voters, he said, it's a "punching bag" for those who don't like trade and blame it for stagnant wages. Illinois has farmers and business who want to keep the trade deal, but for many, NAFTA is shorthand for plant closures.

One Ohio mayor, he said, told him that "80 per cent of the job losses in Ohio are due to automation, but 100 per cent of the people think it's because of NAFTA."

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That's why Donald Trump stopped eating Oreo cookies in 2016. When Mondelez, the company that makes Nabisco products, announced 600 layoffs at their sprawling cookie plant on Chicago's southwest side, sending the work to a new Mexican plant, Mr. Trump said he'd never eat the treats again. It was good campaign politics.

The laid-off workers are still running a boycott of Nabisco products made in Mexico. Anthony Jackson, a 41-year-old Navy veteran who lost his US$25-an-hour job at the sprawling plant on Chicago's southwest side, said Mexican workers are being paid just over a dollar an hour to do the job he did. Of the 440 who eventually lost jobs, Mr. Jackson guesses that about 300 now make less than half their previous wage, often in retail, with better-paid manufacturing jobs scarce. "NAFTA probably facilitated the destruction of my job," he said.

Mr. Jackson thinks NAFTA should be reworked with strong labour protections – but he believes most of the laid-off workers would cheer if NAFTA were torn up. He doesn't believe Mr. Trump will actually do it – but any Chicago politician who campaigned defending NAFTA would not be elected, he said.

At the moment, NAFTA isn't the campaign issue – people are talking about health care, immigration, and Mr. Trump's tax cuts, Mr. Bowen said. NAFTA was hot in 2016, but not this year. But that doesn't mean Democrats support it. When Mr. Trudeau visits Chicago, Democrats will show interest in him, he predicted, but on NAFTA, "his words will fall on deaf ears."

U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer says progress was made at Montreal’s NAFTA talks, but adds he hopes they will 'accelerate.' The Canadian Press
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