Canadians are all too familiar with the time-tested ritual of U.S. politicians trash-talking trade deals during presidential election years only to embrace said deals once in office.
Were some entrepreneurial genius to figure out how to bottle and export anti-trade hot air, the United States might even run a trade surplus – at least once every four years.
Usually, it's the Democrats who corner the market on this carbon-intensive gas. In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton endlessly slagged the North American free-trade agreement. Both vowed to renegotiate the Canada-U.S.-Mexico deal, while accusing the other of bluffing.
In office, of course, Mr. Obama didn't seek to redo NAFTA – indeed, he signed (and Congress ratified) free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea – the latter being the most significant market-opening pact involving the United States since NAFTA's approval in 1993.
The Obama White House is now furiously lobbying Republican leaders in Congress to hold a ratification vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the vast 12-country trade deal (including Japan and Canada) that Mr. Obama is counting on to burnish his legacy. That would be the same deal Ms. Clinton, now her party's presumptive 2016 nominee, supported before she opposed.
As secretary of state during Mr. Obama's first term, Ms. Clinton deemed the TPP the "gold standard" among trade deals, with its added protection for unions and clamping down on child labour in participating countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia. She now says the final text of the deal contains "too many loopholes, too many opportunities for folks to be taken advantage of."
Ms. Clinton has stepped up her anti-trade talk since losing last week's Michigan primary to Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders. The idea that NAFTA caused Detroit's demise is deeply embedded in Democratic minds in the state, and Ms. Clinton has paid a price for speaking out of both sides of her mouth on trade.
Ms. Clinton's husband enacted NAFTA as president, and two years into the deal, she insisted that the agreement to end tariff barriers among the three countries was "proving its worth." As a senator in 2004, she said that, "on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York state and America." But by 2008, she had decided that the deal had not lived up to its promises, saying: "We will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate on terms that are favourable to all of America."
Ms. Clinton's past hypocrisy on trade is strangely comforting. Among the top presidential contenders, she would likely be the safest bet for Canadian exporters. Given her tendency for triangulation, she would probably find a way to turn her TPP "No" into "Yes."
On the Republican side, front-runner Donald Trump has broken with seven decades of GOP tradition, becoming the most protectionist Republican contender since Herbert Hoover. While his attacks are directed at Mexico, China and Japan, Canada would inevitably be sideswiped by the trade wars a Trump presidency portends.
That is, if you believe he's serious about building a wall (a metaphorical one, in this case) around the entire U.S. economy. Mr. Trump has no qualms with the companies he personally chose to license his name and manufacture clothing and trinkets bearing his moniker in China, Bangladesh and Honduras. He has threatened to slap a 45-per-cent tariff on Chinese goods entering the United States – "if they don't behave," suggesting a negotiating tactic with a 45-point margin of error.
Mr. Trump's presidential candidacy is predicated on rallying white, working-class voters who see trade and immigration as the twin culprits behind America's decline, and their own. Whether Mr. Trump actually believes his own populist rhetoric is another matter altogether. No president can unilaterally rip up trade deals or slap tariffs on another country.
Yes, this presidential election cycle has seen even more trade-bashing than usual. Despite a cyclical uptick in U.S. factory jobs, stagnant real wages in manufacturing make it harder to argue in favour of free trade, whose benefits have never seemed so unequally distributed.
Still, Ms. Clinton walked away with this week's Ohio primary despite Mr. Sanders' constant hammering of her record on trade deals. Mr. Trump also tried to nail Ohio Governor John Kasich for voting for NAFTA and supporting China's entry into the World Trade Organization when he was a member of Congress. Mr. Kasich beat Mr. Trump by 11 percentage points.
Whoever wins, odds are that the anti-trade rhetoric will be history come January. At least until 2020.