By William Reinsch:
I have previously commented on the mixed feelings I have about trade policy suddenly being in the national spotlight. It’s great to see your life’s work appear on the main stage, but when you’re the villain rather than the hero, it’s not quite so much fun.
It is clear from last week’s Republican convention that this particular drama is going to have not only a third act, but possibly a fourth and fifth one as well. The first question is whether pro-Sanders Democrats will wage a floor fight on trade policy, despite Bernie himself saying he was not going to do that. The Democratic platform contains many of his points on trade, but it does not go so far as to say, “No, never, not in our collective lifetime” to a TPP vote in the Congress. Will his supporters demand that this week?
If so, it would be disappointing for two reasons. First, the draft platform initially struck a judicious balance on TPP by acknowledging the truth — that there are differences in the party on the subject but that all are united in their view of what an ideal trade agreement should look like. Trying to blow up that balance will only irritate those Democrats that support the agreement and make party unity more difficult.
More important, the fight is misplaced. The anti-trade forces’ argument here is with the president, not with Mrs. Clinton. She has opposed it. While one can argue whether she opposed it early enough or strongly enough as some would like, her statements on the subject have been clear. President Obama supports it. It is one of the important initiatives of his administration, and if it is implemented, it will be a lasting part of his legacy.
The platform waffled on trade not only because of divisions in the party but because of party leaders’ unwillingness to publicly repudiate and embarrass their president, a president who — by the way — is currently more popular than either of the candidates to succeed him. Unfortunately, bringing this to the convention floor makes it look like a fight between the party’s left wing and Hillary, which will make unity harder to achieve (and provide yet another illustration of the Democrats’ historic ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, just when it seemed Republicans had discovered that tactic for themselves).
This campaign season has already been a fact-free debate for months. Putting trade center stage in Philadelphia won’t elevate the arguments but will expose the party’s internal fractures and make it harder to do what all Democrats says they want to do — defeat the Republican candidate.
William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative.