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A Modest Improvement or a Deal to Be Rejected? Warren & Sanders Debate New NAFTA Rewrite

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Progressive Democratic presidential candidates Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders clashed over their trade policy disagreements as they zeroed in on the U.S., Mexico and Canada trade agreement that is meant to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. Sanders said the government can do much better. “The heart and soul of our disastrous trade agreements — and I’m the guy who voted against NAFTA and against permanent normal trade relations with China — is that we have forced American workers to compete against people in Mexico, in China, elsewhere, who earn starvation wages, $1 or $2 an hour,” Sanders said. “Second of all, every major environmental organization has said no to this new trade agreement because it does not even have the phrase 'climate change' in it.” Meanwhile, Warren argued the USMCA “will give some relief” to U.S. farmers and workers. “I believe we accept that relief, we try to help the people who need help, and we get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal,” she said. We speak with Julian Brave NoiseCat, journalist and vice president of policy and strategy at the think tank Data for Progress.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. The music, “Space Oddity” by The Bayfield Sessions, as we continue to bring you this roundtable discussion on the last Democratic primary debate before the Iowa caucus in less than three weeks. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go to moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel of The Des Moines Register with a question on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

BRIANNE PFANNENSTIEL: Senator Sanders, you have said that new deal, the USMCA, quote, “makes some modest improvements.” Yet you’re going to vote against it. Aren’t modest improvements better than no improvements —

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No. We could do much —

BRIANNE PFANNENSTIEL: — for the farmers and manufacturers who have been devastated here in Iowa?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The answer is we could do much better than a Trump-led trade deal. This deal — and I think the proponents of it acknowledge — will result in the continuation of the loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs as a result of outsourcing. The heart and soul of our disastrous trade agreements — and I’m the guy who voted against NAFTA and against permanent normal trade relations with China — is that we have forced American workers to compete against people in Mexico, in China, elsewhere, who earn starvation wages, $1 or $2 an hour. Second of all, every major environmental organization has said no to this new trade agreement, because it does not even have the phrase “climate change” in it.

BRIANNE PFANNENSTIEL: Senator Warren, you support the USMCA. Why is Senator Sanders wrong?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I do. I wasn’t here. I haven’t been in Congress long enough to have voted against NAFTA. But I led the fight against the trade deal with Asia and the trade deal with Europe, because I didn’t think it was in the interests of the American people, the American workers or environmental interests. But we have farmers here in Iowa who are hurting. And they are hurting because of Donald Trump’s initiated trade wars. We have workers who are hurting, because the agreements that have already been cut really don’t have enforcement on workers’ rights. This new trade deal is a modest improvement. Senator Sanders himself has said so.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Julian Brave NoiseCat, a journalist with Data for Progress, your take on this, which was one of the clear policy differences from last night’s debate between Sanders and Warren?

JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: I think that this is a very concerning issue for Democrats right now. Look, the president is, according to the economic indicators, going to head into the general election with a humming economy. He’s going to be able to say to the public that he got the USMCA trade agreement done. This week, it looks like he’s going to be able to say that he got an agreement with China done. And whether those actually make any kind of material difference for people’s lives, you know, that narrative will be a powerful one for him.

And the reason this is going to be such an issue for Democrats is not actually the fault of anyone on the campaign trail; it’s leadership in the House. The USMCA, there was an opportunity for House Democrats — of course, Democrats control the House of Representatives right now — to negotiate harder to include climate and environmental goals in the USMCA. But instead of doing that, they allowed this trade agreement to move forward without any significant inclusion of climate targets, which set up this circumstance where you have farmers and workers on one side and environmentalists on the other. I mean, welcome to Democratic politics. How often does this happen? And that forced this into the campaign cycle, into the primary for Democrats, and it has created it into a wedge issue. And I don’t think that we really have a great message on it right now. Obviously, we should be addressing climate change through things like trade agreements, but we should also, as a party, not be setting our leaders up for a tough, tough race on the campaign trail. And that’s what House Democrats have done with this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s why Bernie Sanders says, unlike the other candidates, he is not going to be signing off on or voting for the trade agreement.

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