Skepticism surrounding the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership has built up on both sides of the American political spectrum, and indeed around the world, but key differences of opinion are emerging on the left just weeks ahead of the Democratic National Convention.
Representatives of Hillary Clinton and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the party’s platform committee — which was thrust center stage by the Sanders campaign — led the fight last Friday against incorporating language in the DNC platform specifically opposing the TPP. In a 10-5 vote, split predictably along primary campaign lines, the Sanders camp suffered a setback in their effort to fulfill his pledge to stop the deal, which he has described as one that hurts workers and ultimately benefits the wealthy.
Clinton formerly supported TPP but officially came out against it in October, following pressure from the left wing of the party. She appointed a slew of experienced policy wonks, such as CAP President Neera Tanden and former EPA administrator and White House advisor Carol Browner, to the platform committee.
The decision by Clinton’s appointees to steer clear of a full-throated opposition to TPP could be a matter of simple loyalty to President Obama, who has lauded the partnership as one that is necessary for American business to succeed in a global economy and compete with China. A number of Clinton’s appointees served in the Obama administration, and the presumptive nominee has defended the president’s legacy and her role in creating it.
Paul Booth, a leader in the AFSCME public employee union and a Clinton representative on the committee, said he would prefer the platform plank on TPP to use “general, in-principle language” — providing cover, perhaps, for a greater acceptance of trade in a Clinton administration. During last week’s meeting, Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents the Sanders campaign, said, “I’d love to work with Mr. Booth, but I’m not picking up any spirit of cooperation from him.”
Amid a generational shift on attitudes toward trade and globalization, it’s worth examining Sanders’ reasons for opposing the TPP. According to the Vermont senator, the partnership “would make matters worse by providing special benefits to firms that offshore jobs and by reducing the risks associated with operating in low-cost countries.” He also slammed TPP for exploiting weak labor laws by promoting trade in countries like Vietnam, which he said has been cited by the Department of Labor, Human Rights Watch, and others for its poor human rights record. Sanders also says the TPP would compromise food safety and limit access to generic pharmaceuticals — the result of a negotiation process that he says was largely carried out in secret.
On Tuesday, Sanders published an op-ed column in the New York Times comparing Americans’ anxiety over trade to British voters’ feelings about the European Union. He demanded that Democrats “wake up” and oppose a deal that does not serve the American working class. “We need to fundamentally reject our ‘free trade’ policies and move to fair trade,” he wrote. “We must defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
Meanwhile, President Obama insists that the TPP boasts the “strongest commitments on labor and the environment of any trade agreement in history.” He has broadly praised the agreement’s dedication to leveling the playing field for American workers and businesses. The underlying message in most of Obama’s remarks about TPP, however, is that he wants to ensure the United States stays ahead of China in the global market.
“The prescription of withdrawing from trade deals and focusing solely on your local market, that’s the wrong medicine,” Obama said Wednesday, responding to questions about another presidential candidate who doubts the value of global trade: Donald Trump.
On the surface, the rift within the Democratic Party is summed up by the conflict between Sanders’ progressive, non-establishment appointees to the platform committee, and Clinton’s more moderate, establishment appointees.
But reality is a bit more complicated: Clinton has distanced herself from the TPP, while her supporters at the highest levels of government nearly all support it (with a notable exception, Elizabeth Warren, who came out strongly against the deal a year ago).
Clinton will have to carefully tiptoe around the issue because she is counting on President Obama to make an economic argument for her candidacy in the months ahead. That may make for uncomfortable moments when Trump denounces trade deals while Clinton and Obama stand together on the campaign trail.
That tension, which has flared in Trump’s anti-trade wake, began months ago. Clinton called the TPP the “gold standard of trade” and had positive things to say about it in her book, Hard Choices. Yet, even after her about-face on the issue, her allies are maintaining flexibility on the deal while Democrats seek to lure Sanders supporters to Clinton’s side.
Even now, many American voters know very little about TPP, and those who know about the deal are split: a Morning Consult survey conducted last March revealed that 29 percent opposed it while 26 percent supported it; 45 percent said they did not have an opinion or did not know how to respond.
In the coming weeks and months, Sanders and his supporters will aim to raise enough awareness about the partnership’s downside — and indeed, the downside of global trade deals generally. If the tides of opinion keep turning, Obama may have to face some tough choices of his own.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) meets with the leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries in Beijing November 10, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque