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Yesterday, I posted some observations about the big vote in the House of Representatives on Friday that dealt a body blow to President Obama’s hopes for fast track authority to negotiate trade agreements like his proposed Pacific Rim deal. Today, let’s focus on three of some of the domestic political implications.

>The trade-related political issue of the moment seems to be why Hillary Clinton has failed to either endorse or oppose the White House’s request for fast track, which would prevent Congress from making any changes to trade deals brought before it. Therefore, it greatly increases the odds of their passage, since Congress historically has been reluctant to hand presidents outright foreign policy-related defeats.

Now, just as I’ve been finishing this post, news has come out that Clinton has made the following statement on trade policy: “The president should listen to and work with his allies in Congress starting with Nancy Pelosi, who have expressed their concerns about the impact that a weak agreement would have on our workers to make sure we get the best strongest deal possible. And if we don’t get it, there should be no deal.”

This position contains some significant changes, but still looks like an exercise in political needle-threading. On the one hand, Clinton has already – vaguely – insisted that the Pacific Rim trade agreement (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP) “must increase jobs, must increase wages, must give us more economic competitive power.” She has added that the TPP must contain strong health and environmental rules, and “address” currency manipulation. That sounds pretty critical, though she’s claimed that she can’t make a final decision since the negotiations are still ongoing.

On the other hand, as noted above, support for fast track will greatly increase TPP’s eventual chances of Congressional passage. And although her new reference to House Democratic leader Pelosi suggests opposition to this measure – given the latter’s crucial “No” vote Friday on a politically related worker assistance program – lots of political wiggle-room remains.

Clinton’s reluctance to take a definitive fast track position is especially striking given her evident desire to shore up her support with the increasingly left-of-center Democratic party base, which of course punches above its weight during primary season, and whose enthusiasm is usually crucial for general election success. It would be easy to conclude, therefore, that the former Secretary of State and New York Senator actually supports the president’s trade agenda, and simply doesn’t want to alienate the faithful.

Yet there’s still room for doubt as to her views. After all, everything else about Clinton’s campaign strategy points to confidence that her strong front-runner status will last, and that the party has no real alternative for the nomination. If so, how difficult would it be for her to frankly acknowledge the difference with the base over trade policy, and ask Democrats to focus on all the areas of agreement?

Perhaps she’s worried about the enthusiasm factor in the fall of 2016? That concern, however, seems to overlook the reality that much of the strong partisanship developed in the Democratic base for so long has been based on demonizing most Republicans. (The opposite is of course true as well.) So it wouldn’t seem to be inordinately difficult for skilled political operatives like Clinton and her advisers to stoke those partisan emotions during the general campaign.

Even if her strategy is to win in November by tacking toward the middle after winning the nomination (which is pretty standard operating procedure for most presidential hopefuls), it’s still hard to believe that committed Democrats are going to stay home in significant numbers and risk electing a Republican who no doubt will strongly oppose most of their other economic and hot-button social policy goals (e.g., at least maintaining the national abortion status quo).

Finally, whatever the fate of fast track this week or next, it’s certain that trade issues will remain campaign issues through the next presidential election. If Mr. Obama’s trade agenda dies, the next president will need to explain what he or she would replace it with. If it survives, then it’s likely that the talks TPP negotiations will continue, and that a deal will either be concluded sometime in the next few months, or continue approaching. So Clinton can’t duck this issue forever.

My bottom line (based on zero inside information!) is that Clinton does in fact favor fast track and something very close to the current trade agenda, and that she’s trying to temporize as long possible to attract as much campaign funding as she can from social and partly economically liberal Wall Street-ers and Silicon Valley executives who nonetheless strongly favor offshoring-focused trade policies. In other words, she’s trying to run as what New York Times reporter Noam Scheiber has insightfully called a “boardroom liberal.”

>The AFL-CIO’s role in crippling hopes for fast track was decisive, and the labor federation has won (so far) in large part because it started playing hard ball. In particular, earlier this year, the AFL threatened to fund primary challenges to Democratic lawmakers who supported fast track and the rest of the Obama trade agenda. This decision was especially important given labor’s previous record in trade policy battles.

The union movement has strongly and rightly opposed the longstanding trade policy status quo, and lobbied energetically and often effectively against it. Indeed, labor has always been able to provide the lion’s share of the money and ground troops needed by any successful advocacy effort. But when it came to trying to force Democrats to pay a political price for dissenting, the AFL and others typically demurred – and precisely due to the kinds of extreme partisan beliefs alluded to above. Labor, moreover, has had good reason for such partisanship, given the strongly anti-union turn taken by Republicans for the last quarter century. Nonetheless, the price labor paid was marginalization on trade issues. Democratic politicians who favored trade agreements knew they could ignore the unions with impunity.

You can tell how dramatic labor’s shift this year has been by checking out the whining it occasioned from Democratic Members of Congress. (By the way, when’s the last time you heard an American politician complain about the heat he or she has taken from the business-dominated offshoring lobby on trade or any other issues?)

But win or lose, now that the actual crucial trade votes are being taken, and the record is becoming clear, it’s up to labor to take the next step and follow through on its threats. Unless the legislation changes qualitatively, members of the House and Senate who have supported the fast track bill need to be challenged by generously funded, labor-backed candidates who promise to support major changes in U.S. trade policy.

As Machiavelli and many other great political thinkers have written, anyone who attacks the king had better kill him. The only exceptions that arguably might be made are lawmakers whose states or districts have been clear winners from trade. You can get a pretty good idea of who they are by comparing the Wall Street Journal and Economic Policy Institute data sets on which I based this recent post.

>It was very encouraging to see only six legislators in the Congressional Black Caucus (which numbers 45 House Members and one Senator) vote for renewal of the TAA program – and thus for the Obama trade agenda. As you might recall from this post, one of those six – New York Democrat Gregory Meeks tried to make the argument that much opposition to the president on trade, especially from Republicans, was race based. How great to see the vast majority of his CBC colleagues reject this demagoguery, and instead vote the economics. They have made abundantly clear how African-American workers in the trade-heavy manufacturing sector have been victimized along with the rest of the nation and economy by today’s fatally flawed U.S. approach to international commerce.

Finally, for your convenience, here’s the official roll call for that crucial worker assistance (Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA) vote on Friday that put President Obama’s trade agenda on life support.  

 

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