Sometimes it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, or in this case the schadenfreude. The disagreement between progressive Democrats and the White House flamed into open political war this week, as Barack Obama’s usual allies resorted to a filibuster to block one of the President’s key goals on free trade.
Republicans, including Orrin Hatch took to the Senate floor to blast Democrats for abandoning agreements to move the bill giving Obama plenary trade power to the floor. But the real fight is the civil war among Democrats and their establishment and progressive wings.
This internecine fight may have caught many Americans by surprise. Until very recently, the media has focused more on the narrow divisions between Republican presidential hopefuls. The fight over free trade, an issue which traditionally splits Democrats while uniting Republicans, has percolated for months – or perhaps decades, ever since Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as part of his attempt to push the Democratic Party to the center on economic issues. Ever since, progressives within the Democratic Party have bitterly complained about the loss of jobs and wage supports that they claim resulted from NAFTA.
The fight broke out into the open over Obama’s attempts to sign a free trade agreement with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He wanted the Senate to agree to give the bill an up-or-down vote rather than attempt to amend the agreement ex post facto. That proposal, called “fast track” or trade promotion authority (TPA), mirrored earlier authority granted presidents on other trade negotiations. In response to concerns from progressives, Obama pledged to include protections for workers and the environment, but refused to make the deal public before the vote, worrying that it would kill the deal.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has led the progressive charge against the trade deal, demanding that Obama make the terms public in exchange for Democratic votes in support of TPA. The squabble broke out into the open when Obama went on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews on April 21st to bluntly tell Warren that she didn’t know what she was talking about. “I love Elizabeth. We’re allies on a whole host of issues. But she’s wrong on this,” Obama told Matthews. “When you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts they are wrong.”
Warren blasted back immediately, in essence arguing that the American public can’t trust Obama to be honest about the agreement. “People like you can’t see the actual deal,” Warren wrote on her website, implying that multinational corporations had driven the agreement without any oversight. “If … there’s a provision hidden in the fine print that could help multinational corporations ship American jobs overseas or allow for watering down of environmental or labor rules, fast track would mean that Congress couldn’t write an amendment to fix it. It’s all or nothing.”
The battle between Warren and Obama reached its stunning conclusion on Tuesday, when almost every Democrat in the Senate voted to filibuster TPA; Delaware’s Thomas Carper was the only Democrat to back the President on the vote.
The recriminations immediately escalated in the wake of the vote, as the progressives began a weird form of self-immolation. Obama bitterly criticized Warren for her continued opposition despite his assurances that the trade deal would work well for American workers.
“The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else,” Obama told Yahoo News Saturday before the filibuster. “And you know, she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there.” In response after the vote, Warren’s defenders bizarrely accused Obama of sexism. NOW president Terry O’Neill said that by using Warren’s first name, the "clear subtext is that the little lady just doesn't know what she's talking about."
That’s merely the more amusing aspect of this progressive meltdown. The bigger picture is the stunning break within the party between the most progressive president since LBJ and the rank-and-file progressives who make up their congressional delegations. The US federal system does not have an explicit analogue to the parliamentary system’s votes of no confidence, as the states elect the executive in the American system separately from the legislature. This is as close as it gets, though, as Democrats have literally expressed a complete lack of confidence not just in Obama’s trade policy, but in his personal integrity and reliability.
Perhaps they have learned not to trust White House reassurances that if you like your wage and environmental protections, you can keep your wage and environmental protections. If so, progressives arrived at the party a little later than the rest of the nation.
This does complicate the next presidential election for Democrats, though, in a way that will end up leaving them vulnerable in November 2016. The entire Democratic caucus has now pushed the party to the left of Obama, whose progressive policies have failed to produce sustainable economic success while costing a fortune in debt and regulatory burdens.
Hillary Clinton has begun tacking to the left in her campaign, going where the wind blows, but she will have trouble inspiring the kind of turnout that protected Obama from the failures of his first term in the 2012 election – and Republicans will likely offer the kind of fresh face and record of executive success that Hillary lacks.
And if progressives signal that Obama can’t be trusted to keep his word, what does that say to voters about Clinton?
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