Hillary Clinton has backed NAFTA-style “free-trade” agreements and she has opposed NAFTA-style “free-trade” agreements. Like other prominent Democrats, she has been inconsistent in her support of what is best for workers, the environment and human rights.
But Clinton has a chance to get trade policy right when it matters.
And when it matters is now.
As she launches a 2016 presidential campaign in which she seems to be interested in grabbing the banner of economic populism—going so far as to complain in her announcement video about how “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top”—Clinton can and should stake out a clear position in opposition to granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority to negotiate a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Despite overwhelming opposition from labor, farm, environmental and social justice groups, Congress is preparing to consider whether to provide Obama with the “Fast Track” authority he seeks to construct a "free-trade" linking the North American and Asian nations of the Pacific Rim. Imagine the North American Free Trade Agreement on steroids and you get a sense of what is at stake.
It is remarkable that the House and Senate would event consider surrendering their authority to make amendment, to provide oversight and to check and balance the executive branch on so vital an economic and social issue. Yet, the legislation has now been introduced and they White House and corporate interests are gearing up a massive campaign on behalf of Fast Track. If it succeeds, the TPP will be negotiated behind closed doors and with inadequate oversight from Congress.
No matter what anyone thinks about “free trade," as it is currently arranged to benefit multinational corporations that seek a race-to-the-bottom economics, or “fair trade,” as it should be arranged to protect workers, the environment and human rights, no one who believes in openness, transparency and democracy should back Fast Track .
The practical arguments against “Fast Track” are clear enough. As Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says: “(Americans) have seen these type of ‘free trade’ deals rushed through Washington before, and we saw the results firsthand: closed factories, depleted industries and lost jobs. We cannot make the same mistakes of the past. If the administration wants to get the approval of Congress for this new agreement, we must take the time to conduct the careful and thorough oversight this measure requires.”
The political arguments against “Fast Track” are, if anything, even clearer. Mark Perrone, the new president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, explains that “no elected official, regardless of political party, who is truly interested in making the economy better and fairer, can responsibly support the TPP. Simply put, this trade deal, like so many others, is bad for our workers, families, and shared future. In the end, while we may not be able to change every mind, we will remember those elected officials who stood with America’s workers by voting for jobs and against another destructive trade deal. More to the point, we join with the AFL-CIO and other unions that refuse to support any member of Congress that decides to put narrow self-interests above the interests of hard-working families.”
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich presumes that Clinton is in a tight spot. As Obama’s Secretary of State she talked up trade deals, including the TPP initiative. As a senator, she backed some and opposed others. Reich says the question of whether to stick with Obama or to oppose his Fast Track request “could definitely be a headache for her in 2016 because it is so very unpopular among progressives.” Democracy for America’s Jim Dean amplifies the point when he says, “Like a vote for the Iraq War or statements of support for the Social Security-cutting Bowles-Simpson plan, a vote for Fast Track and the TPP will never be forgotten…”
Politics requires hard choices—the title of Clinton’s memoir.
Clinton should make one. Instead of sticking with Obama, she should stick with principles she embraced a senator. In 2002, she opposed granting President Bush Fast Track authority. And, as a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, she won states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania at least in part because of she declared that, “The United States should be pursuing trade agreements that promote human rights and worker rights, not overlook egregious abuses."
Notably, when she spoke to United Auto Workers members during that campaign, Clinton said, "Every trade agreement has to be independently, objectively analyzed."
The first place in which trade agreements must be independently and objectively analyzed is in Congress—before they are adopted. Clinton can and should state this truth, as she makes the hard choice to oppose the president she once served and side with the Democrats she proposes to lead.
There is plenty of skepticism about Hillary Clinton’s much-discussed but at this point scantly-articulated embrace of economic populism. She can address at least some of that skepticism right now, at the start of her 2016 campaign, by opposing Fast Track.