How Tom Perez Embodies the Democrats’ TPP Rift

How Tom Perez Embodies the Democrats’ TPP Rift

When it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Tom Perez is stuck between a rock and a hard place—or rather, between his current boss, President Barack Obama, and his potential future boss, Hillary Clinton.

In his role as the U.S. labor secretary, Perez has gone to the mat for Obama as a prominent supporter of the trade agreement. He’s quick to admit that past trade deals like NAFTA have been disasters for working people, but he’s even quicker to insist that the TPP is different—that it addresses past shortcomings with real, enforceable labor standards.

He’s long been in an awkward position on his support for the deal, given that his allies at the labor unions vehemently oppose the deal. Still, labor leaders have largely given Perez a pass on his TPP support, as they understand the position he’s in and are huge fans of everything else he’s done as labor secretary.

However, with vice-presidential speculation swirling around him; a renewed focus on the Democratic Party’s position on the TPP; and increased pressure from both progressives and Trump on Clinton’s own position, Perez is in a trickier spot than ever before.

In an interview on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd on Sunday, Perez said that his work constructing labor protections and promoting the deal was part of his job. “This is what the president tasked me with doing, Chuck, and I was proud to do it,” he said.

The rift, he says, is regarding whether the deal ensures "the strongest protections for the workers that we've ever had." 

“The president and Clinton have a disagreement on whether TPP has gone that far. This is not the first time in the history of the Democratic Party that there have been differences of opinion," Perez said.

But he evaded a direct answer on whether he, as a “political citizen” and not as a member of Obama’s cabinet, personally supported the agreement. The evasion is indicative of a future pivot that Perez would have to soon make should he be tapped for the vice presidential slot or another position in a Clinton administration. That’s a stark change from when he said just over a year ago that “[t]rade agreements like the TPP are critical to our 21st century competitiveness."

Perez’s current political quandary, however, is a product of the larger rift within the Democratic Party. The TPP remains a powder keg, just waiting to blow up the party as unity on the issue remains elusive.

Last week, when the Democratic National Committee released a draft of its party platform, it declined to explicitly condemn the TPP, citing “the diversity of views” on the matter. Given the fact that 85 percent of House Democrats voted against fast-tracking the deal last year, it was clear that the “diversity of views” was a polite way of saying that there was no way the DNC would officially snub a major hallmark of Obama’s presidency.

And that’s precisely where the dividing line is in the Democratic Party. On one side is Obama and those who support the deal as is. On the other side, the full spectrum of opposition runs from Clinton, who has sharpened her position to calling for stronger trade prosecution against China and protections for the U.S. auto industry, to Bernie Sanders, who thinks the deal should be thrown out altogether and is lobbying DNC delegates to support a platform amendment explicitly opposing the TPP.

Perez will be forced to continue the political straddling—acknowledging the disagreement between Clinton and Obama without expounding on it—throughout the campaign. That is unless the political cosmos aligns and he is tapped as vice president, or Obama tacitly agrees to back off on pushing for a lame-duck vote, or the DNC changes its platform.

In any case, Perez will be an important bellwether in monitoring how the party ultimately handles an Obama-to-Clinton TPP transition.