Democratic Unity: The Very Tricky Case of Trade

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Delegates supporting Bernie Sanders wave TPP signs during opening proceedings at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday, July 25, 2016.

The unity on display at the Democratic National Convention both Monday and Tuesday nights was nothing short of remarkable. Bernie Sanders has been a radical insurgent all of his political life. He defined himself a democratic socialist and political independent because he could not stomach the corporatized Democratic Party epitomized by the Clintons.

Yet Sanders, working the caucuses, spent his political capital quelling the same radical energy that he had inspired—in favor of unity behind Hillary Clinton. By Tuesday night, he could move the nomination of his rival by acclamation, and the handful of boos from his own hard-core were all but inaudible.

Did Sanders sell out? I don’t think so. As a real world politician who knew that Hillary’s nomination was inevitable, Sanders did what he did because he wanted to extract everything he could in exchange for what turned out to gracious and warm-hearted support.

Sanders and his people brokered an explicit bargain. Hillary Clinton would move substantially left. But will she uphold her end of the deal? Or will she make a liar of Sanders?

Consider the emblematic case of trade. The Sanders and Warren people, and other progressive critics of recent trade deals, fought hard to have the platform repudiate the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the first round, at the platform committee, they lost.

Largely because of pressure from the White House, the Clinton delegates on the platform committee outvoted the Sanders delegates and approved bland language opposing trade deals that harmed workers, but rejected an explicit commitment to oppose TPP.

However, in an effort to appease Sanders and his delegates, language was added saying that the TPP needed to pass several tests:

We will oppose trade agreements that do not support good American jobs, raise wages, and improve our national security. We believe any new trade agreements must include strong and enforceable labor and environmental standards in their core text with streamlined and effective enforcement mechanisms. Trade agreements should crack down on the unfair and illegal subsidies other countries grant their businesses at the expense of ours. It should promote innovation of and access to lifesaving medicines. And it should protect a free and open internet. We should never enter into a trade agreement that prevents our government, or other governments, from putting in place rules that protect the environment, food safety, or the health of American citizens or others around the world.

These are the standards Democrats believe must be applied to all trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).” [emphasis added]

Bernie Sanders has said that he interprets this language as explicit opposition to TPP.

In the jockeying on Monday and Tuesday over Sanders support for party unity, TPP opponents made two explicit requests to the Clinton campaign.

First, the campaign was asked, at the highest level, to contact President Obama and request him to back off his pressure on Congress to approve TPP during the lame duck session of Congress. According to senior sources in the Sanders campaign, the call was made and Obama’s response was: no way.

Obama is as passionate as ever about getting TPP approved. And, you may recall, Michelle Obama, in perhaps the most gracious and effective convention address by a first lady ever, threw all of the weight of the Obamas behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign. After that performance, it is a little difficult to imagine Clinton throwing Obama under the bus.

Second, Sanders and his top people explicitly requested Clinton to personally work the phones and tell Democrats in the House and Senate not to vote for TPP in the lame duck session, so that she could keep her word to Sanders and demonstrate resolution against bad trade deals as part of her campaign against Trump. Clinton, say my sources, was non-committal.

This pressure will continue, of course, but without the leverage of this week’s unity drama. It’s not at all clear that Clinton will deliver—unless she and her lieutenants conclude that this is necessary for her campaign against Trump.

Presumably, Clinton needs to run as more of a progressive both because the Sanders/Warren wing of the party demands it and she needs their positive energy, and because she needs a credible counter to the raw populism of Donald Trump. Despite all of his blunders, Trump is basically tied with Clinton in the polls.

The leverage of the Sanders campaign to make demands on Clinton peaked on Monday and Tuesday. The main threat, of course, was to withhold support, or to display a messy public rift.

Moreover, the leverage of the Sanders crusade as an organized campaign for nomination disappears after Thursday. Sanders himself will take a well-deserved break; some of his lieutenants will commence building that movement in Sanders’s name. But Clinton and her people will be firmly in charge from here through November.

Even so, TPP may yet fall of its own weight. Trump’s opposition to bad trade deals is not a total anomaly among Republicans. Job-killing deals have become less and less popular among Republican voters. Many Republican House and Senators may not be so eager to vote for TPP, even in the lame duck session. Three Republicans who supported trade negotiation authority, which barely passed Congress, now oppose TPP (Representatives Mike Bost of Illinois and Bill Shuster of Maryland, and Senator Rob Portman of Ohio).

Looking forward, it’s not enough just to kill TPP. Progressives want to shift future U.S. trade policy toward using American leverage for improving the world’s labor, social, and environmental standards, and not for carrying out a corporate agenda.

Changing U.S. trade policy and who it serves would sure be easier if the next president were on board. And whether Clinton quite realizes it or not, her election may depend on it.

If you go back through historic Democratic splits, they rarely ended well. In 1968, the sweet Gene McCarthy kids and the late breaking Bobby Kennedy wave were demolished by the police violence at the Chicago convention. Nominee Hubert Humphrey’s break with LBJ on the Vietnam War was too little and too late. A whole generation of idealistic kids was disgusted with the Democratic Party. Just enough of them stayed home or cast a protest vote, and the result was the Nixon presidency.

In 1972, it was the left that won a rare convention victory in the nomination of George McGovern, and the center-right that stayed away or defected to Nixon. In his re-election, Nixon carried 49 states.

In 1980, liberals appalled by the conservatism of the Carter administration persuaded Ted Kennedy to challenge a sitting Democratic president. Kennedy faltered, and could not explain why he was seeking the presidency. Carter managed to win re-nomination, but was badly weakened. The Iran hostage crisis didn’t help. The result was Ronald Reagan.

And we all know what happened in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as an independent.

About the only time in modern history that a Democratic split did not destroy a Democratic candidate was in 1948, when Harry Truman survived both the insurgency of Henry Wallace on the left and a Dixiecrat challenger, Strom Thurmond on the right. Truman, not incidentally, prevailed by running as a full-throated New Deal progressive.

The unity fest on display Monday and Tuesday evenings will last only if Hillary Clinton runs as the progressive that all of the other speakers claimed she has become, that the platform commits her to, and that the Sanders/Warren supporters expect of her.

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