Trade Politics and the Presidential Campaign

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 42nd International Convention at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Tuesday, July 19, 2016. 

The Democratic Platform Committee will send its draft on trade policy to the full convention, having declined to openly oppose the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On July 9, the Platform Committee instead inserted a phrase saying that trade pacts, including the TPP, “must protect workers and the environment and not undermine access to critically needed prescription drugs.”

While both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had opposed the TPP in campaign statements, it was the Clinton appointees and Obama supporters who voted to reject a more explicit anti-TPP plank. Labor delegates whose unions oppose the TPP say that the wording of the draft is clear enough for them. The Sanders delegates were sorely disappointed.

Knowledgeable observers, including Larry Cohen, the distinguished former president of the Communications Workers of America and a Sanders supporter, attribute these divisions to loyalty to President Obama—who has made the passage of TPP a priority. At the very least the platform language on trade, assuming its ratification by the Democratic convention makes for trouble for Senator Clinton in the face of Donald Trump’s brash anti-globalization braggadocio, and the lightning bolt Brexit vote in the U.K.

The paradoxes could not be richer. Consider what occurred in the 2008 election. In February 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama, as candidate for president, said the U.S. “should use the hammer of a potential opt-out” to force Canada and Mexico to reopen trade talks on labor and environmental protections, as he in turn hammered his opponent, Senator Hilary Clinton, on her husband’s support for NAFTA, and her changing position on it. Clinton, pressed, said, “I will say we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate.” Each candidate used the others’ prior support for NAFTA or some form of free trade as negatives in the increasingly bitter fight over Midwest blue-collar Democratic votes. (They still existed then.)

As the anti-NAFTA rhetoric heated up, the officials at the Canadian Consulate in Chicago had sought a meeting with Obama’s key economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee of the University of Chicago Business School. A typescript of notes taken at that meeting and later leaked to AP, found its way onto the internet, and is still available.

The memo’s writer was apparently Joseph De Mora, a Canadian official in the Chicago consulate. His notes say,

Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign. Consistent with CHCGO/WSHDC's analysis, he cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political-positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans. [emphasis added]

I became aware of the Goolsbee/De Mora transcript during the 2008 campaign, when, as now, my focus was specifically garment workers in the global rag trade and generally workers in the U.S. economy. So, while willing with élan to vote for the first African American presidential candidate of a major party, I was not “in love” with the candidate. I was not then disappointed in my disappointment when the president and leader of what sometimes pretends to be party of the working class failed to do anything at all about NAFTA and is now spearheading a trade treaty that repeats all of the failures of past treaties.

Oh well, it’s the era of globalization, right? We plebes are supposed to take it for granted that the experts on international trade have it right: “All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

The problem is that they have tin ears, and lead pants. The Brits may have done us a service. The rocket they sent over the bows of the elites with the Brexit vote is illuminating the Trump vote. It is not just that they don’t listen; nor is the problem that they don’t care. Rather, the people in charge of our economy and our trade policy do care; they are pursuing with ferocious concentration a policy regime for themselves that threatens to sink most of us into insecurity and penury.

The trade policies articulated by candidates for president of the United States are to actual policy as party platforms are to legislative priorities. The correlation may be close to zero. In 2008 the candidate of the Party of the Common Man campaigned against trade deals that hurt workers. Then, as president, he pushed hard for two more such deals.

In 2016 both candidates of that party pledged to oppose such a deal. The candidate that won then had her delegates oppose the opposition to the deal. Remind me please why we have campaigns.

In the meantime, the party demographics of the United States appear to be undergoing a vast sea change. Trump speaks for a Republican base that includes a large fraction of what used to be the Democratic homeland: working families in the middle of the country. The Republican marriage with finance capital is estranged; separate bedrooms for now. The Democratic center depends on a guilty affair with Wall Street and even its left (Sanders) wing is more educated and affluent than its former base.

A Boston Globe writer—Scott Lehigh—wrote on July 21 that viewing the Republican Convention reminded him of Alice’s remark to the White Queen: “One can’t believe impossible things.” But, Lehigh pointed out, the White Queen replies, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Of course that was before he saw the Democratic convention, and heard the rhetoric about trade deals. 

Opponents of TPP hope to kill the deal before Hillary Clinton occupies the White House. But President Obama will try to get the deal done during the lame duck session of Congress between November and the holiday adjournment. With Trump, Sanders, and Clinton all on record opposing the deal, members will be hearing from their constituents over the break. We will soon learn whether Clinton’s opposition was real or just posturing.

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