On the internet, when a writer includes a question in the title of a post, it's often merely a rhetorical one: "How much more of this [insert outrage] can we take?" Or, even worse, the question is actually just clickbait: "OMG, [insert celebrity] did what wearing nothing but glasses?" There's a question in the title of this post, but it is being asked sincerely. Who knows what it will mean that the Republican nominee for president--Donald Trump--at least appears to be running to the left of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, on the matter of international trade. That he is doing so is a yuge (sorry) story, one whose impact we may not fully understand for some time.
To say that international trade is a complex issue is an understatement. In political campaigns, however, complex issues such as trade often get boiled down to a single element. In this campaign, for better or worse, trade = TPP. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), according to its own language, "writes the rules for global trade" between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific countries--including Japan and Vietnam, but not China. Among its many, many provisions, its primary goal is to reduce tariffs and promote more trade among its members.
Hillary Clinton had praised the agreement while serving as President Obama's Secretary of State. In 2012 she declared that TPP "sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field...and build[s] in strong protections for workers and the environment." Throughout most of 2015, Clinton's campaign took no official position on the agreement, even as Bernie Sanders came out strongly against it. However, after the treaty negotiations finally concluded and the Obama Administration announced its support, Clinton in early October of last year stated that she opposed TPP: "As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it. I don't believe it's going to meet the high bar I have set."
What happened this week is that both presidential campaigns--one directly, and one indirectly--staked out positions on the agreement.
First, let's get something out of the way. Yes, a party platform is just a platform. It has no binding effect on the nominee. But in reality, nothing, ever, is truly binding on any nominee or public official, including a statement made by that official the day before. However, the platform is a political document--and thus it becomes a part of the public debate.
This past week, the Democratic Party's platform committee turned aside a proposal put forth by Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota that would have put the party on record as standing opposed to TPP heading into the general election. Instead, the platform includes a statement noting that "there are a diversity of views in the party" on this matter. This is a nuanced position. Politics, however, doesn't do nuance. One respected news source reported the story under the headline: "Democrats to endorse Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement." That may not be exactly accurate, but perception is reality.
Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't matter much in terms of the presidential election--despite significant dissatisfaction with TPP among many on the left--because the Republican Party has long been reflexively in favor of every free trade agreement that comes down the pike. Enter Donald Trump.
For months Trump has been slamming TPP. He claimed last November that TPP offered great benefits to China--remember, they aren't a party to it--a claim that Politifact rated a "Pants on Fire" lie. Then, just after the Democratic platform committee voted last week not to oppose TPP, Trump attacked again. In Pennsylvania, he said:
The TPP would be the death blow for American manufacturing.
It would give up all of our economic leverage to an international commission that would put the interests of foreign countries above our own.
It would further open our markets to aggressive currency cheaters. It would make it easier for our trading competitors to ship cheap subsidized goods into U.S. markets - while allowing foreign countries to continue putting barriers in front of our exports.
In Ohio, going off script, he added: "The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country. That's what it is, too. It's a harsh word: It's a rape of our country. This is done by wealthy people that want to take advantage of us and that want to assign another partnership. So Hillary Clinton, not so long ago, said this was the gold standard of trade pacts. The gold standard." Just over a week ago, Trump also offered the following:
Hillary Clinton has also been the biggest promoter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will ship millions more of our jobs overseas - and give up Congressional power to an international foreign commission.
Now, because I have pointed out why it would be such a disastrous deal, she is pretending that she is against it.
[snip] if she is elected president, she will adopt the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and we will lose millions of jobs and our economic independence for good. She will do this, just as she has betrayed the American worker on trade at every single stage of her career - and it will be even worse than the Clintons' NAFTA deal.
I want trade deals, but they have to be great for the United States and our workers.
We don't make great deals anymore, but we will once I become president.
Granted, in this speech Trump also made the bizarre claim that Clinton "even deleted this record of total support [for TPP] from her book." This claim earned another "Pants on Fire" rating from Politifact, which added for good measure that "anyone who compares the hardcover and paperback versions of [Clinton's] book can see that the claim is ridiculous."
The ridiculousness aside, this is the first issue on which Trump's stance vis-a-vis Hillary's is concerning. A writer at the progressive Common Dreams website wrote an article with the headline: "Trump Just Drove a Truck Through Hole DNC Platform Panel Left in Clinton's TPP Promise." Jonathan Tasini, who opposed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary during her 2006 run for the U.S. Senate, argued that the platform's non-opposition to TPP "puts the party at electoral peril in November and, more important, leaves it at odds with the interests of working people, one of its most important constituencies."
Now, to some degree, these are the opinions of Sanders supporters who may simply be seeking to push Clinton to come out even more vociferously against TPP, and get her to scotch any attempt to push it through during the upcoming lame duck Congressional session--something rumored to be in the works and something she has already gone on record opposing.
Nevertheless, Sanders voters are, well, voters. For any voter--Sanders supporter or not--who places a high priority on opposing TPP, Trump's position may make him a more attractive candidate than Secretary Clinton. His stance on international trade may well help him do better among white, working class voters than recent Republican nominees have done. Additionally, new research shows that the American electorate is more white than previously thought. Is this likely to cost Clinton the election? No. It's one issue, and it doesn't change the fact that Trump's extremism disqualifies him in the minds of a strong majority of voters.
Nevertheless, this is the first issue that has the potential to put Hillary on the defensive. It's the first one where Trump's outreach to Bernie voters--his ridiculous claim that he and Sanders are more alike in their vision for America than are Bernie and Hillary--could actually resonate. In addition to the substance, it plays into the theme that Hillary is for "the elites" while Trump--like Sanders, he'd claim--is for the little guy.
It doesn't help that the single institution that best represents the business establishment--the Chamber of Commerce--ripped into Trump this past week over his TPP stance. Trump responded in kind: "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is controlled by the special interest groups. They are special interests that want the deals they want to have. They want to have TPP." Even more so, it doesn't help that the Chamber's president, Tom Donohue, also said point blank that--despite what Clinton says now--he knows she will support TPP as president. Think about the optics of that one. The Chamber of Commerce says Hillary is on its side, while Trump stands opposed to both of them. Trump says you can't trust Hillary, and that she is only pretending to oppose TPP. The Chamber of Commerce agrees. Yikes.
Of course, Trump's attempt to outflank Hillary to the left on TPP also means there's a potentially profound split within the Republican coalition. The Chamber of Commerce does represent a crucial and significant part of the Republican base, i.e., the business community and corporate elites, not to mention all those who support free trade on an ideological basis.
Until Trump came along, support for free trade was Republican orthodoxy. This split can't be a good thing for Republicans in this election. Furthermore, it can't possibly help them in the long run to have had millions of people pulling the lever for a Republican presidential candidate who hates the party's long-standing position on trade. The Democratic platform is correct: There is a diversity of views on TPP in the party. In the Republican Party, there really isn't. Trump is on one side, and the whole of the party's establishment is on the other.
So let's go back to where we started: What does it mean that Trump is running to Hillary's left on international trade and TPP? No one knows, exactly, although it's clearly roiling both the Democratic and Republican coalitions to at least some degree. Maybe this is the beginning of a fundamental political realignment, with the two major parties morphing into pro- and anti-globalization/immigration movements along the lines of how the British divided on the Brexit vote.
One thing is certain: Bernie Sanders still has an important role to play here, perhaps on this single issue more than any other in the campaign. He is the one person who can forcefully vouch for Hillary Clinton and convince those remaining holdouts (the number of which is, thankfully, shrinking even faster than the comparable number of Hillary supporters who said they opposed Obama at this point in 2008) that she--and not Donald Trump--is the candidate who will better represent the interests of working-class Americans when it comes to trade. The big question is how effectively Bernie will do so.