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Mike Jacobs: N.D. leaders resisted NAFTA

Let's go time traveling today. We won't go far into the past, just a little less than a quarter century. Our sojourn will be brief, only long enough to reacquaint ourselves with the biggest political issue of the year.

Ah! Yes! Here we are. It's 1993. Can you hear the noise?

It's the first year of Bill Clinton's first term as president. The issue of the hour is a trade deal called NAFTA, short for North American Free Trade Agreement. Clinton is for it.

NAFTA wasn't Clinton's idea. He inherited the treaty from his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, who will become known to history as Bush 41, because he was the 41st president. Sometimes he'll be called "Bush Senior." Or "H.W."

None of these labels applies in 1993. Bush Senior left the White House on Jan. 20 that year; nobody knows that his son, George W. Bush, will later be president. He isn't yet governor of Texas, and politicians and historians haven't started calling him Bush 43.

Bush Senior had pushed the trade agreement, but it isn't really his idea either. Ronald Reagan talked about it during his campaign for the presidency in 1980. Bush Senior was the vice presidential candidate and the team was elected.

The Reagan administration succeeded in making a deal with the Canadians, and Mexico asked to be included. Canada, led then by Brian Mulroney, didn't like the idea initially, and that helped delay the larger deal.

Now the door of our time machine opens. Do you hear the shouting?

Opposition to the treaty is nearly unanimous across North Dakota. All three members of the state's congressional delegation oppose it. So do labor organizations. So do farm organizations representing sugar producers and grain growers.

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan helps incite opposition, organizing a number of demonstrations at the international border. The target is Canadian grain sales, not abroad but also at North Dakota elevators. Unfair, Dorgan insists. Hundreds turn up at rallies at Pembina and Fortuna, major border crossings.

Dorgan isn't alone. Sen. Kent Conrad is hardly less vocal. Nor is Earl Pomeroy, the state's only member of the U.S. House. Nor, certainly, is Sarah Vogel, state agriculture commissioner. All of these officeholders are Democrats.

One state official supports NAFTA, Gov. Ed Schafer, who is a Republican. Nor is he casual in his support. He travels to Washington, joining President Clinton at a rally supporting the free trade agreement.

After a year of noise, the treaty is adopted. It takes effect Jan. 1, 1994.

Pomeroy tempers his opposition to the treaty, suggesting he voted against it on the narrow issue of Canadian wheat sales. Conrad remains critical of the treaty.

Dorgan becomes more strident. Listen as he damns Canadians for currency manipulation and Mexicans for dumping commodities — especially sugar — on U.S. markets.

Dorgan keeps it up.

In 2006, Dorgan publishes a book called "Take this Job and Ship It." The subtitle is "How corporate greed and brain-dead politics are selling out America."

North Dakotans appear to accept Dorgan's point of view. He was elected to the Senate in 1992, so he's in his first term during the controversy about NAFTA. His position brings him national attention and in an editorial printed on June 27, 1993, the Herald labels Dorgan "the biggest trade war hawk in the country."

North Dakotans re-elect Dorgan to the Senate in 1998 and 2004. He decides not to run again in 2010, escaping the so-called "wave election" that turns out many incumbent Democrats, including Congressman Pomeroy. The issue in that election is not free trade but something called "Obamacare," otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act.

Our time machine is landing now. The door opens. Hear the noise that greets us now? A Republican president declares that NAFTA was a "horrible deal" and vows to withdraw from the treaty unless it's amended in ways he insists upon.

Negotiations stall.

Given what we've seen on our time travels, the news reports about NAFTA should surprise us. Jenny Schlecht of Forum News Service tells us that North Dakota is among the states "most likely to be negatively affected if the U.S. withdraws from NAFTA." That assertion — startling in the context of what we've seen on our time travels—comes from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which found that only Michigan and Wisconsin would be hit harder.

The same Herald editorial mentioned earlier hinted that might be the case.

"The eventual winners in this trade war have yet to be declared," the Herald opined.

Full disclosure: The editorial was signed "Mike Jacobs for the Herald."

Yours truly and Ed Schafer are two of the few North Dakotans on record in support when NAFTA was still a concept.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. His column is published each Tuesday.

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