Hillary Clinton Isn't Tacking Right For The General Election

That could spell doom for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Hillary Clinton doesn't seem to be backing down on her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Hillary Clinton doesn't seem to be backing down on her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Presidential candidates almost always follow the same pattern of ideological movement during election years. They play to their party's base in the primaries, and then temper their message to win over moderates in the general.

Hillary Clinton isn't following this playbook on economic policy. She didn't move much to the left during her battle with Bernie Sanders, and now that she is the presumptive nominee, she isn't cutting right. In recent speeches in Ohio and North Carolina, Clinton's economic pitch has been indistinguishable from the positions she laid out during the primary debates. She still supports expanding Social Security and guaranteeing debt-free college tuition. She stands by her defense of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and mentions Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) by name when lauding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that the progressive icon established. Equal pay for equal work hasn't gone anywhere, and neither has her call for federal childcare support.

The policy that matters most in Clinton's stump speech is her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When Clinton formally came out in opposition to the TPP in October, it was widely viewed as a reversal -- she had worked on early drafts of the pact as Secretary of State, and promoted it as an important foreign policy. As recently as January, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donohue -- the top corporate lobbyist in America, and a partisan Republican -- predicted that Clinton would come back around on TPP if elected.

TPP sharply divided the Democratic party in 2015. While President Barack Obama and Republican leaders in Congress strongly back the trade pact with 11 other Pacific nations, most Democrats oppose it, as do many Tea Party Republicans. The discontent between Obama and congressional Democrats eventually festered into an ugly public battle with Warren. TPP critics note the deal empowers corporations to challenge domestic rules and regulations before an international court, and object to provisions designed to raise the prices of life-saving medicines. Obama and the Chamber maintain that it will boost economic growth and help workers both at home and abroad.

But so far, Clinton isn't budging on her TPP opposition.

"We should renegotiate deals that aren’t working for Americans, and reject any agreements – like the Trans-Pacific Partnership – that don’t meet my high bar for raising wages or creating good-paying jobs," Clinton said Tuesday in Ohio.

Barney Frank, a top Clinton surrogate on economic matters, published an op-ed in The Boston Globe on Monday titled "RIP, TPP" in which he blasted calls for Congress to pursue a vote on TPP during the lame-duck session following the November elections. Although the White House has been eager for such a move, the rumor on Capitol Hill is that support for the pact has fallen through the floor since last year.

In late June 2015, Congress granted Obama so-called "fast track" trade powers -- blocking legislators from amending trade pacts negotiated by the president, and barring filibusters on those deals in the Senate. At the time, there were 218 votes in the House in support of the deal -- the exact number needed for passage. On controversial votes, a 218 majority typically means that the Speaker of the House has at least a few extra votes on standby that he isn't forcing out. But it also means that the margin is pretty slim. The loss of a handful of Democrats (or Republicans) would be enough to block TPP's enactment.

TPP figures prominently in the economic policy of the next administration because it is one of the only areas of policymaking where Clinton can achieve progressive goals without actually doing anything. Absent a landslide victory, Clinton will face at least one chamber of Congress controlled by Republicans if she takes office. If the past eight years have been any guide, getting the GOP to play ball with a Democratic president will be extremely difficult. But she won't need a cooperative Republican majority to take down TPP. All she'll need to do is refuse to sign a TPP bill.

A year ago, things looked grim for TPP opponents. Hillary Clinton may have rescued them.