Hillary Clinton, in preparation for next week’s initial Democratic presidential debate, is giving her rivals little room to differentiate themselves. She’s come out against the Keystone XL pipeline. She endorsed repealing the Cadillac tax on high-cost health insurance plans. She put together a comprehensive Wall Street reform package that in many ways, though not all, hews closely to others in the field.
On Wednesday, Clinton decided to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the just-inked trade deal with 12 nations that is a centerpiece of Obama administration second-term achievements. “The bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don't believe this agreement has met it,” Clinton said in a statement, cruelly timed to the moment that top White House officials were holding a conference call defending the deal.
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This has sent a chill into the hearts of a particular Washington specimen: the self-appointed guardians of order. Mark Halperin flatly accused Clinton of lying about her opposition to TPP. Others pointed to Clinton’s praise for TPP in her recent book, or the 45 times she’s spoken out in favor of it. And Ezra Klein pronounced himself “unnerved” because it shows her as calculating and poll-driven.
In other words, the theory goes, Clinton is pandering, taking a position that she may not sincerely support to appease a faction of the constituency she wants in her corner. Unions don’t like TPP or the Cadillac tax, and with Bernie Sanders breathing down her neck, Clinton had to adjust her profile to keep their endorsements rolling in.
There are definitely signs that Clinton had prior (and very possibly, future) support for TPP. Her top policy advisor on the deal while at the State Department, Robert Hormats, praised it the day before she came out against it. If you take the temperature of those in her policy orbit, you would probably find more supporters than opponents.
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But a lot has changed since November 2012, when Clinton called TPP “the gold standard in trade agreements.” One point she made in this week’s PBS interview on the topic is that, while at the State Department, she pushed for higher standards in the South Korean free trade agreement, yet was still disappointed in the results. “Even a strong deal can fall short on delivering the promised benefits,” Clinton said in her statement.
Indeed, the U.S.-Korea deal led to an 80 percent increase in the bilateral trade deficit and 75,000 U.S. jobs, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute. So a retrospective view, combined with witnessing first-hand the struggles of the American worker on the campaign trail, may have brought Clinton to a considered change in viewpoint.
But the bigger issue is this: What’s wrong with pandering? Our system of government, as it has evolved, offers precious few opportunities for ordinary people to get into the national conversation. Big Money has a tight grip on governance through insistent lobbying, and for the most part they fund national elections.
For once, the Democratic nominating fight, and the emergence of Bernie Sanders, has given public interest groups a voice, a rare channel to impact the political system. We shouldn’t roll our eyes at that; we should respect it. National leaders should have to listen to their constituents and earn their support. Primaries are one of the only moments that allow such an opportunity.
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The thing about outside leverage on politics is that it’s not static. It can change, and leaders can drop their panders when it suits them politically. Public interest groups and ordinary citizens must not take anything for granted and remain insistent. They are correct to look at this skeptically.
But here’s what we know from political science, a point made most eloquently by the same Ezra Klein who is so unnerved by Clinton’s position-taking: Politicians typically keep their campaign promises. Presidents may not fulfill them, but that has more to do with Congressional obstruction than a flip-flop.
In other words, locking in a particular endorsement in a primary has real lingering effects. That makes the process some call pandering, which I would call paying attention to your political base, all the more important. If you can move a candidate on an issue you care about, you can keep them in that position for a long time.
This isn’t always the case, and if Clinton won the election, went into office and subsequently started whipping votes for the same trade deal she now decries, I wouldn’t exactly be surprised. But the point is that that would be an unusual circumstance.
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Even if it transpired, Clinton’s opposition today has real meaning. TPP will get a vote within the next six months, and with so many problems on the left and right, I’d doubt it would pass in the House if the vote were held today. The Clinton announcement only strengthens that likelihood, and January 2017, when the next president is sworn in, is a long way away. The whole agreement could collapse by then. Opposition now holds incredible value for the coalition against TPP, even with the potential of support later.
More important, opposition allows the popular will to be spread through politicians who may not even share opponents’ goals. While one poll shows amorphous support for “expanding trade deals,” others clearly display broad opposition to the types of policies embedded in TPP. Clinton cannot simultaneously be obsessively poll-driven and oppose TPP against her personal interest. Presumably she knows at least something about where the electorate sits on this issue. In a Washington wired for a pro-trade consensus, that perspective usually doesn’t get expressed — unless there’s an election, and a politician fighting for votes and willing to express it.
Washington types love politicians who make “tough choices” against the public’s wishes. And they don’t like pandering. Another way to put this is that they don’t like the unwashed masses getting their noses involved in the choices our government makes. I would rather that regular citizens take advantage of the leverage afforded in opportune moments to obtain the power not already sucked up by the wealthy and large corporations. We shouldn’t react cynically, but happily, that there’s still a role in our allegedly broken system for the voice of the common man.