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Hillary Clinton’s Moment on Trade

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By William Reinsch: 

Like just about everybody else in the presidential campaign, with the notable and courageous exception of John Kasich, Hillary Clinton has come out against the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and has also touted her previous opposition to other agreements.  At the same time, she has also been careful to point out both the value and importance of trade.  As she told John Dickerson on “Face the Nation,” “I do believe in trade. … We are five percent of the world’s population. We have to trade with the other 95 percent. That has on balance been a net plus for our economy.”

She’s right about that, and it’s nice to see at least one note of realism injected into the campaign, but it doesn’t take us very far down the path back to sanity. Polling data suggests majorities in both parties agree with the general proposition that trade is a good thing, but support falls off as the questions drill down to the specific effects of trade — job gain or loss for example — and to specific agreements.  Mrs. Clinton’s statements tend to reflect polling data on trade, and her argument with Sen. Sanders seems based more on who was against trade first (he wins) than on who is against it now. 

Despite her statements, however, she has not suffered the same criticism from the business community that both Trump and Sanders have received because her answers are more thoughtful and because a lot of people in the business community don’t think she means it. While the latter view may contribute to public unease about her trustworthiness, I think she is sincere. Indeed, from the perspective of someone who has followed her views on trade for a long time, I would say that if she flip-flopped on the issue it was when she supported TPP when she was in the Obama Administration and not when she is opposing it now. 

The easy, albeit sexist, analysis is to assume she simply agrees privately with her husband, a strong internationalist who supported a pro-trade agenda when he was president. However, that would be wrong. Her experience as senator from New York for eight years brought her face to face with the consequences of globalization in terms of job loss, offshoring, and wage stagnation long before they were featured on the nightly news, and she is acutely aware of the dramatic changes in the world economy since the 1990s, having heard about it first hand from her then-constituents and subsequently from the thousands of people she has met on the campaign trail. 

So I think she starts from the same place as Sanders on the issue. The difference is she is trying to find a positive solution instead of just complaining about trade agreements. Making lemonade out of lemons, if you will. She appears to realize that opposing trade agreements is fundamentally a negative position. Sanders is saying the middle class is being squeezed, and it’s the fault of trade. So, “no more trade agreements” means what? That, if he’s right, things won’t get worse. But that is hardly a guarantee that they will get better.

Clinton, in contrast, has tried to turn the debate in a more positive direction by discussing what we can do to make things better, to create more jobs and growth. She knows that most of those lost jobs aren’t coming back. The American people know that too — they’re smarter than the politicians think — but it’s easier for the latter to just stoke the fires of resentment than it is to do the hard work of coming up with positive measures that will change things for the better. Clinton has done far more thinking than the others about that, and while she starts from the same anti-trade position as they do, she presents more hope that if elected she will actually know what to do. 
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William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative.

Photo credit: U.S. Embassy via Flickr
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