When Max Baucus, President Obama’s ambassador to China, returned to the United States last winter, he and his wife decided to settle in his native Montana, which he represented in the Senate from 1978 to 2014.
But next Tuesday, Baucus will take a break from building a house near Bozeman to return to Washington to speak to the Washington International Trade Association on the subject that has become his obsession in retirement—the importance of free trade, especially to American agriculture.
In a telephone interview Monday, Baucus noted that he had supported “virtually every trade agreement” when he chaired the Senate Finance Committee and said the United States must remain engaged rather than withdraw from the world stage, even as President Trump has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and is insisting on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“We must ship our ag products overseas” or other countries “will step into that void,” Baucus said. It would be a “huge mistake” for the United States to withdraw from NAFTA, he added.
Baucus and former Sen. Richard Lugar, who chaired the Senate Agriculture and Foreign Relations committees, have formed the bipartisan Farmers for Free Trade. While other groups lobby in Washington, Farmers for Free Trade has been set up to convince farmers and rural Americans that trade is so important they must put pressure on local and state officials to highlight the importance of exports to their economies. In turn, the mayors and governors will put pressure on Congress and Trump to continue the trade policies that have led to massive U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico, Canada, China, and other countries, Baucus and Lugar believe.
Farmers for Free Trade, Baucus said, “will organize the interior of the country” in favor of trade. Although Baucus is a Democrat and Lugar is a Republican from Indiana, they do not intend to focus on taking the trade message to their respective parties.
“The calf, the cow, the wheat, the corn—they’re not Democrat or Republican,” Baucus said. “I want to stay away from the political labels. What is happening in Washington these days is so polarized. We are not getting into that swamp. We are going to advocate for trade. “
The very creation of Farmers for Free Trade shows, however, that there is a challenge in convincing rural Americans that trade is a top issue on which they should and can have influence.
Ag groups were the strongest backers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, but during last year’s election, farmers and ranchers ignored Trump’s promises to withdraw from TPP and renegotiate NAFTA. Instead they focused on Trump’s promise to reduce regulation and gave Trump at least two-thirds of their votes.
Farmers for Free Trade “was born of the recognition that the loser of the 2016 election was trade,” said Brian Kuehl, a former Baucus chief of staff who is executive director of the new group and director of federal affairs for K-Coe Isom, a national accounting and consulting firm.
When Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there was only “a whimper” from rural America, Kuehl noted.
Darci Vetter, the chief agriculture negotiator in the Obama administration, has signed on as an adviser. She noted that she grew up on a Nebraska farm and believes that “the voices of American farmers and ranchers have the power to change the course of this debate.”
Everyone in agriculture—from farmers and ranchers to food-company executives, packagers, and transporters—must convince mayors and governors to “make noise” so that Congress and the Trump White House will pay attention, said Sara Lilygren, a former Tyson Company executive who is chairing the Farmers for Free Trade board.
Lilygren and others plan to take their message of the importance of trade to state farm conventions this winter and are urging governors and mayors to issue proclamations like the one Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued proclaiming Dec. 4 Agriculture Trade Awareness Day across his state. But the group also recognizes that it needs to reach farmers directly and is planning a digital advertising campaign.
That will take money. The American Farm Bureau Federation has provided initial financing, and Baucus said he and Lugar are now trying to raise money from throughout the ag sector for a bigger advertising campaign so that people will be more aware of the trade issue.
When he was a senator, Baucus noted, he used to say that the 900,000 people who live in Montana were “the world’s best bosses,” and he told his constituents, “You are my employers.”
Today, Baucus still believes “the people are in charge.” If people are informed of the consequences of NAFTA withdrawal, he said, “We have some power in ourselves as the people to prevent withdrawal.”