OTTAWA — The scandal-tinged defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama’s special Senate election is raising faint hopes that it might embolden some decidedly reluctant Republicans to speak out in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Notwithstanding a series of explosive sexual misconduct allegations, Moore had the strong backing of Donald Trump, but still lost to Democrat Doug Jones — the first time that party won a seat in Alabama in a quarter century.
Despite Moore’s obvious flaws, his defeat has also been widely seen as a repudiation of Trump’s agenda, which includes tearing up NAFTA if he can’t wring concessions out of Canada and Mexico.
The Trudeau Liberals have been mounting a full-court press to win support for NAFTA in the U.S., not just in Congress but among businesses as well as state and local governments.
U.S. business groups, including its Chamber of Commerce, have loudly defended NAFTA and urged Trump not to announce a U.S. withdrawal next year.
But the response from American lawmakers has been tepid at best. Capitol Hill is seized with tax reform, and some Republicans don’t want to ignite a war with their hair-trigger, Twitter-friendly president or risk offending Trump supporters in their core base.
Perrin Beatty, the president of Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday the defeat of Moore resonated in meetings he had Tuesday in New York City with his American business counterparts.
“I’m hopeful that it will mean moderates will be emboldened and will be saying, ‘Look … we have to do what’s good for jobs and focus on these bread and butter issues,”’ Beatty said in a telephone interview from New York, where he was trying to raise NAFTA’s profile as part of a tour that also included a stop in Philadelphia.
“I’m not under any illusions that the Republicans lost because of NAFTA, but this certainly does demonstrate it’s important for the party to represent much more than a fringe.”
Sarah Goldfeder, a former U.S. diplomat in Mexico and Canada who is following the trade negotiations at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa, said Moore’s defeat is “going to fuel the traditional Republican core” and has the potential to moderate the right-wing influence that has taken hold.
“Those people are going to push for a back-to-basics Republican party,” she said. “That trade is good, business in good, jobs are good, unions bad — it’s that party.”
Trade lawyers in Canada and the U.S. were less optimistic that the Alabama result would make it easier to talk about NAFTA.
Dan Ujczo, an Ohio-based international trade lawyer with Dickinson Wright, said when he initially heard the news about Moore’s defeat the first question he asked was: what does this mean for NAFTA?
After thinking about it, he concluded: not much.
“Roy Moore was a fundamentally flawed candidate,” he said. “I don’t know how much we can extrapolate out from Alabama to a repudiation of the Trump agenda.”
He said a few more Republican senators might be inclined to go public with their support of NAFTA, but most of its champions have already stepped forward.
The trade deal remains unpopular in the northern rust belt states of Ohio and Michigan, where Trump won support in the election, he said.
“There’s no political upside for them to come out in favour of NAFTA right now.”
Lawrence Herman, a Toronto-based international trade lawyer with Herman and Associates, said it difficult link Moore’s defeat with Trump’s agenda.
“Given the dispersal of influence and pressure points in the bizarre U.S. system of governance, whether the Moore loss has an impact on NAFTA negotiations is hard to say,” he said.
“(It) probably doesn’t help the White House in its full-steam ahead approach, however, and that could well be of benefit to those in Congress that want to maintain the treaty intact.”