Now that the fight over Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) has finally concluded, we can marvel at some of the stunning contradictions that emerged during the debate. Republicans ended up giving Barack Obama his first significant second-term achievement, Chris Cillizza wrote at The Washington Post. Democrats nearly humiliated their own President. Somehow, in the midst of all these contradictions and surprises, Hillary Clinton may have done the most damage to herself.
First, Obama ended up proving his lame-duck status in a most embarrassing manner. The liberal wing of Capitol Hill Democratic caucuses signaled loudly and clearly that they had no confidence in their own President on the key progressive theme of anti-globalization.
Until now, Obama had achieved little in trade negotiations during his six-plus years as president. The exception -- he concluded leftover negotiations with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea from George W. Bush’s administration, all in 2011 under Hillary Clinton. More than a dozen more potential agreements have languished during the Obama term.
Clearly, Obama doesn’t have an itch for free trade. Obama might be forgiven for thinking that his own party would give him the benefit of the doubt on TPP. Instead, Democrats gave Obama a massive vote of no confidence on trade.
The Republican impulse to rescue Obama didn’t make much sense to the conservative base, either. For years, GOP leaders have warned that Obama had arrogated unprecedented and unconstitutional powers, most recently on his executive actions on immigration. But they also charge him with abuse of power regarding Obamacare, too. House Republicans took Obama to court to fight Obama’s unilateral rewriting of statutory deadlines on mandates in the latter case, and have won an initial round of litigation to block the former.
Republican leadership argued that the party’s philosophical commitment to free trade and the long precedent for fast-track authority made this the right call. However, they ended up making the argument that Obama can be trusted with extraordinary authority, at least when it comes to Republican priorities. The conundrum tripped up GOP presidential candidates too, especially Ted Cruz, who changed direction at the last minute to oppose TPA only to see it pass anyway.
None of the politicos caught up in this did worse than Hillary Clinton did, however. As Secretary of State, she spent three years negotiating the parameters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Jake Tapper at CNN went through the archives of the State Department and the media, finding forty-five separate occasions in which Secretary Clinton extolled the TPP trade bill. The final endorsement came just before she left office, in January 2013, a few months before starting to write her second memoir, ironically titled Hard Choices. Soon after, she started planning her next run at the presidency.
The White House clearly expected Hillary to provide Obama with support for TPP. After all, in Hard Choices (pages 69-70), she had written that TPP “would link markets throughout Asia and the Americas, lowering trade barriers while raising standards on labor, the environment, and intellectual property.”
In the 2014 memoir of her time as America’s top diplomat, she concluded that “TPP won’t be perfect – no deal negotiated among a dozen countries ever will be – but its higher standards, if implemented and enforced, should benefit American businesses and workers.” On top of that, Hard Choices argues that TPP is “a strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the United States in Asia.”
Instead of making that case and demonstrating her foreign-policy experience, Hillary stonewalled the media on the question of both TPA and TPP. In her big campaign relaunch speech, she never mentioned trade and only spoke passingly about foreign policy. NBC’s Chuck Todd pressed Team Hillary strategist John Podesta the next day about why Clinton remained silent on trade. Todd got no answer on her TPP or TPA position. Progressives, moderates, and the media began to discuss the silence from Hillary on what had been one of her big initiatives at State.
Almost a week later, Hillary finally staked out a position, but only on TPA, and even then not without hedging it. Cornered by experienced Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston, Hillary finally said she’d “probably not” vote for fast-track authority if she still had her Senate seat. However, she explained that TPA was “a process vote,” not the same at all as TPP, on which she still refused to take a position.
That “process,” though, was needed to serve the cause of finalizing “the signature economic pillar of our strategy in Asia.” If TPP was both as good and as important as Hillary described it in her memoir, then why object to TPA at all? Democrats opposed TPA entirely to prevent TPP.
The only way out of this conundrum for Hillary would have been the failure of the TPA bill – and she almost got her way with this last-minute nudge. Instead, GOP leadership and Obama twisted enough arms to finally get TPA passed, which means that the US can finalize TPP and present it to the Senate. That will need to happen before the 2016 election, as the Senate will no doubt want to debate it thoroughly, and a post-election session of Congress may pass on taking broad action on trade after the US elects a new president to take over from Obama, no matter who it is.
When TPP comes to the Senate, everyone will finally get a close look at it. If it’s as bad as progressives believe, then Hillary will come under fire for having worked on a bad trade agreement, just as progressives still blame Bill Clinton for NAFTA. If it turns out to be benign, that will raise questions about Hillary’s lack of political fortitude in failing to support her own initiative. She will be accused of being willing to torpedo what she herself called “a strategic initiative” to strengthen the US in a very critical theater, all to pander to the Democratic grassroots for her own selfish career aspirations.
In other words, she loses either way, thanks to her refusal to share her positions with voters. Hillary Clinton wants a coronation, but the trade fight could very well dethrone her.
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