Why the Democrats Need to Sink the TPP

Of all the misfortunes that may befall Hillary Clinton and the Democrats at their upcoming convention, the one they have most reason to fear is a platform fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. By repudiating the TPP, which has yet to come before Congress, and promising to repudiate those trade deals already in effect, Donald Trump is clearly scoring points with voters in Rust Belt states whose support the Democrats have long counted on in presidential elections. Earlier this year, Clinton reversed her provisional endorsement of the TPP, thereby aligning her position not only more closely with those Rust Belt voters’, but also with Bernie Sanders’ and most of the Democratic establishment (unions, environmentalists, and a clear majority of Democratic members of Congress).


Yet the draft of the Democratic platform that emerged last month from the party’s drafting committee, and came before the full committee on Friday and Saturday, did not include a repudiation of the TPP. On a host of other issues, the Clinton representatives on the committee acceded to Sanders’s proposals, backing a $15 minimum wage, for instance, and even positions that Clinton had previously opposed, such as a financial transaction tax. But on the TPP—an issue on which Sanders and Clinton were presumably in accord—the motion to oppose the deal failed to pass, even though most of the members who rejected the motion oppose the TPP itself.

The reason they rejected the motion was deference to the TPP’s primary sponsor—President Obama, who hopes Congress will ratify the measure during its post-election session. “I disagree with him” on the TPP, said Elijah Cummings, the drafting committee chair and a congressman from Maryland, “but I don’t want to do anything, as he ends his term, to undercut the president.”

Problem is, this sets up the Democrats for a no-win debate at their forthcoming convention. Of the various platform planks he’s pushed that the drafting committee didn’t approve, Sanders has made clear that the one he’s likeliest to fight for is this one. He understands, I suspect, that such causes as Medicare for All and a carbon tax are a bridge too far for the current Democratic Party, just as he understands that opposition to the TPP is a bridge that most Democratic politicians and activists would be relieved to see their party traverse.

Hillary Clinton needs this fight like a hole in the head. Should the issue come to the convention floor, not only will Sanders’s delegates vote to oppose the TPP, but hundreds of Clinton delegates may feel compelled to vote that way as well. Their ranks will include leaders or members of unions or environmental groups long on record against the TPP, and members of Congress from districts across the post-industrial Midwest. No less a Clinton supporter than former Congressman Barney Frank, whom party head Debbie Wasserman Schultz appointed to chair the convention’s Rules Committee, has repeatedly argued that Obama should abandon his quest to get the TPP ratified.

Worse yet, imagine the debate that would ensue at the convention. TPP opponents will cast the document as a vestige of the party’s Wall-Street-influenced ancien regime, which crafted the deals that enriched major investors and consigned the nation’s industrial workforce to history’s ash heap. Whatever the deal’s defenders may say—it won’t be as bad as earlier ones? We’re against it but we can’t forsake the president?—will hardly help Clinton and the Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania this fall.

There’s a way the party can avoid this impending debacle. In agreeing to back a financial transaction tax, the drafting committee wrote, “We support a financial transaction tax to curb excessive speculation and high-frequency trading, which has threatened financial markets. We acknowledge that there is room within our party for a diversity of views on a broader financial transaction tax.” When the full platform committee convened on Friday and Saturday, similar language, opposing the deal but acknowledging a diversity of views, could surely have been drafted for the TPP.

Ultimately, whether the party reaches this kind of accord or plunges into a debilitating debate at its convention is up to the president. Obama clearly views the TPP, if ratified, as part of his legacy. But his broader legacy stands or falls on the outcome of November’s election, which, should Trump prevail, would ensure a reversal of all of Obama’s good work on health care, immigration and worker rights. To let this debate go forward, Mr. President, is one helluva roll of the dice.

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