Keeping Up With the Times and the Democratic Party

Here's the real message behind the congressional votes on fast-track authority and trade-adjustment assistance: Democrats will no longer support major trade agreements that cost American jobs and create further downward pressure on wages, especially as inequality continues to accelerate.

President Obama won the final vote but not the heart of the majority of Democrats who opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the president can now negotiate on a "fast track."

Consider that this new fast-track trade authority was opposed by every member of the House Democratic leadership and an overwhelming 85 percent of House Democrats; all but two of the Senate leadership and 70 percent of the Democratic senators; and every Democratic candidate for president, including the most likely nominee, Hillary Clinton. The president prevailed by one vote, literally without a single vote to spare.

I've been counting votes long enough to know that it takes only one vote more than the other guy to win. But I also know that when an issue is decided by only one vote, the fight's not over. This isn't 1993, and this is not Bill Clinton's Democratic party.

When President Bill Clinton won passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, he had the support of 40 percent of the House Democrats and exactly half of the Senate Democrats. Then, most of the liberal economists, including Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Reich, also enthusiastically backed NAFTA and other agreements critical to the global economy.

I was not a believer and voted against NAFTA, but a decade of expanding trade and rising employment and incomes seemed to confirm that the NAFTA boosters were right -- until the financial crisis, the Great Recession, the absence of any wage growth in the years afterwards and the obscene level of inequality proved them wrong. In this fast-track debate, my colleagues in the Congress and I did not need economists to doubt the administration's claims about the recovery or all the new jobs

Consider more recent history.

The 2012 U.S.-Korea agreement doubled our trade deficit with Korea in the pact's first three years and cost America more than 75,000 jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The 2009 trade agreement with Peru contained, for the first time, enforceable labor and environmental standards in its core text. Yet last year, Peru significantly weakened its worker and environmental protections. That a Democratic president was responsible for enforcing it made no difference.

And through it all, currency manipulation, mostly by Asian trading partners, was costing American jobs -- 1 to 5 million American jobs, according to the former head of the Peterson Institute, Fred Bergsten. That's 1 to 5 million American jobs lost.

Despite that growing evidence of job loss, former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his protégés, like Jason Furman, Jack Lew and Larry Summers, all rallied to win support for President Obama's trade agenda. In recent op-eds, Larry Summers barely mentioned the word "jobs" and noted that the global economy is "working spectacularly well for capital and a cosmopolitan elite that moves easily around the world," and not so well for the "middle classes."

Well, Democrats are now mostly not listening, and even the economists have changed their thinking.

Liberal economists are upping their criticism of free markets, deregulation and the American economy, particularly after the publication of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And they are extending their analysis to trade and globalization.

Here then is the message from a united Democratic Party:

We will no longer take on faith that trade agreements create jobs.

We know an army of corporate lobbyists is writing the rules behind closed doors.

We know those rules are likely to hurt the American workers we represent.

The Democrats' opposition to the trade agreement says we believe, as the people of America know, that American jobs matter. And the fight's not over.