When the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal first came before Congress, in the form of fast-track authority to let President Obama wrap up the deal, Democracy for America, the influential liberal group started by Howard Dean, released this warning to Democratic lawmakers:
Ahead of today’s votes we wanted to be very clear to Democratic members of Congress: If you vote for either Medicare-cutting Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation or Fast Track Authority for the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership, we will not lift a finger or raise a penny to protect you when you’re attacked in 2016, we will encourage our progressive allies to join us in leaving you to rot, and we will actively search for opportunities to primary you with a real Democrat.
For labor unions and the base of the Democratic Party, TPP is not just one issue among many. It is the issue. Very few Democrats in Congress support the deal, or any free trade deal for that matter. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, asked if he would support TPP, said, “The answer is not only no, but hell no.”
“I have never, ever in my 33 years in Congress ever supported, ever supported a trade agreement. And I’m not going to start now,” Reid said. “They’re not good for the American people. They’re not good for working men and women. It puts us at a disadvantage.”
Hillary Clinton is now running in a Democratic primary in which the most motivated voters are virulently opposed to this deal, and labor unions, an indispensable source of money and organizing for any Democratic nominee, have made it their number one issue.
Plus, there is virtually no political downside to her opposition to TPP. There is no constituency in the Democratic party that is rabidly in favor of the deal (just try to find someone who says she lost his or her vote over this decision), and Republican presidential hopefuls who are dead set against ObamaTrade will have a hard time attacking her for it. Certain policy wonks are disappointed in her, but that will likely be the extent of the backlash.
In other words, there was no way Hillary Clinton could ever support it. It would be like a Republican presidential candidate endorsing Obamacare. He or she would be applauded in some quarters for principled nobility, but the nobility would be suicidal. Hillary Clinton decide that TPP was not the hill she wanted to die on. How you feel about Secretary Clinton’s decision probably has more to do with your feelings about Hillary Clinton and politics in general than about TPP.
What is odd, given that she and her staff must have known for months she would have to oppose TPP, is what a poor job she is doing explaining her position. As Vox’s Timothy B. Lee points out, her explanation makes no sense.
[S]he cited two specific objections: It doesn’t have language dealing with currency manipulation, and it has provisions that favor big drug companies over patients.
These are totally plausible arguments for opposing the TPP. But they make no sense as reasons for Clinton to change her mind about the treaty.
Currency manipulation has never been a part of TPP and was never going to be. And as for the pharmaceutical language, it is better than it was in the draft version of the deal that had caused so much consternation. In fact, several aspects of the final deal are, by all reports, more “progressive” than critics of the deal feared. TPP skeptic Paul Krugman, in a post called “TPP Take Two,” wrote:
[T]he WH is telling me that the agreement just reached is significantly different from what we were hearing before, and the angry reaction of industry and Republicans seems to confirm that.
Given that the White House spin on the final deal is so good, why come out against it now? Why not wait until the text is released and then claim the fine print leads her to reject it? Why choose two reasons two oppose it that ring so hollow? On other issues, including gay marriage, Clinton has claimed a genuine evolution in thinking. Why not say she used to support TPP but after traveling the country and listening to Democratic voters, she has decided she cannot support it after all?
Being a politician and making decisions on the basis of politics is not inherently a bad thing. Many Clinton supporters see her willingness to accede to political realities as evidence of her acumen and ability to win and to get things done. But unions and progressives may wonder why Hillary Clinton is not making more of an effort to telegraph that she is a genuine ally.