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Litmus Tests on TPP?

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By William Reinsch:

Apparently trade and TPP are inescapable these days. Last week the Clinton campaign announced that former senator and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar would chair her transition team. This immediately produced an outcry from the progressive wing of the party because of Salazar’s past outspoken support for TPP. This sort of litmus test is profoundly depressing for two reasons.

First, Salazar is not running for president. Mrs. Clinton is. What she thinks about TPP matters. What he thinks about TPP, or anything really, does not. The transition team’s job is to prepare the incoming administration to take over by making sure it is presented with the issues it will face and the policy decisions it will have to make in the short term. I served on one transition team and was involved with another. While we made recommendations, they were about policy options, not which one to choose, and they were occasionally about people, not which ones to choose but about what credentials were appropriate for a specific job.

What we did not do was take sides or, even worse, insert our personal agendas into the documents, and no one should expect that the current transition teams will be any different. In other words, what Salazar thinks about TPP doesn’t matter.  His job is going to be to present his candidate with the issues she will face and the choices she will have to make if she takes office, not to tell her what to decide. (Besides, as a practical matter, as leader of the entire team he is simply not going to have time to focus on individual policy issues. If the anti-trade folks are determined to persist in this misguided effort, they should pay attention to who ends up manning the USTR team).

Second, even more depressing is the idea that it is okay to have litmus tests in the first place. This is a growing trend in our political system — where an appointee’s past statements or past affiliations become reasons to oppose. So, a nominee who is an NRA member becomes unacceptable to the left, and one who contributed to Planned Parenthood becomes unacceptable to the right, even if the job is in the Department of Transportation. This is a perversion of the process which imperils our democracy.  Appointees should be judged on their credentials, their experience, and their judgment, not on irrelevancies.

This is particularly important in the executive branch, where the appointees work for the president, who should be able to assemble a team that will ably implement her policies. And, if you are on that team, your duty is to support the leader. If you can’t do that, you get off, or don’t get on in the first place.  Ironically, in light of the Salazar controversy, there is a good example in Mrs. Clinton herself. She has been criticized for supporting TPP when she was Secretary of State. Of course she did. As part of the team she was expected to. It was her duty, and she did it well, regardless of her personal views. 

When I served in the government it was my privilege to testify 53 times before Congress. A number of those were about controversies where Clinton administration policies were being attacked. The members of Congress at the time, including those who opposed those policies, had the good sense to understand that they were the president’s policies, not my personal ones — and that my job was to implement his policies, not theirs, and to defend them as best I could. The result was, for the most part, a relationship of mutual respect (there are always a few wingnuts). We now seem to be losing that with respect to both officeholders — see the attempt to impeach John Koskinen, the IRS Administrator — and appointees. And, as the Salazar flap demonstrates, the problem is on the left just as much as it is on the right. So, my advice to the ideologues at both ends of the spectrum is: chill. Do your best to get your candidate elected, and then focus your attention on the policies he or she will put forward, and not on the individuals tasked with carrying them out.  
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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: Collin Knowles via Flickr
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