This Sleeper Issue Took Over The Democratic Convention's First Night

The Trans-Pacific Partnership was suddenly on everybody's lips.
Delegates protest the controversial trade deal during the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Delegates protest the controversial trade deal during the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

PHILADELPHIA ― The first day of the Democratic National Convention was defined by powerful speeches urging party unity and angry protests rejecting those calls. But the convention hall was also abuzz with policy debates over the direction of the Democratic Party, and no single issue dominated there like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And that’s kind of amazing. Most people think TPP is really boring, if they’ve heard of it at all. The controversial trade deal gets almost no play on TV news; it’s frequently buried in the back pages of newspapers. Even in the usually marginalized realm of stories about economic policy, it takes a backseat to issues like breaking up big banks or raising the minimum wage.

But TPP was a huge deal on Monday night. Anti-TPP buttons and stickers adorned the shirts and backpacks of hundreds of delegates, while signs attacking the trade pact were hoisted across the convention floor ― only “Michelle” signs celebrating the first lady were more ubiquitous. And vocal protests from TPP opponents provided some of the most dramatic moments of the evening.

We’ll get to the exciting part (fights!) in a minute. First, the basic facts: TPP is a trade agreement among a dozen Pacific nations, including the United States. It’s also a major foreign policy endeavor and a broad slate of regulatory standards affecting everything from prescription drug prices to greenhouse gas emissions. The deal, which has been signed but not yet ratified, gives corporations ― but not workers, consumers or nonprofit groups ― the right to challenge a country’s laws before an international court. So TPP is widely viewed as an expansion of corporate influence over policy decisions both at home and abroad.

That angers a lot of traditionally Democratic constituencies. Labor unions, environmental groups and public health advocates have all cried foul over the pact, which is opposed by both the presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). President Barack Obama, however, considers TPP a cornerstone of his presidential legacy. And he has powerful allies in pushing the deal, including Republican leaders in Congress, much of the foreign policy establishment and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a top lobbying group for major corporations.

Protesters disrupted Rep. Elijah Cummings' speech as they shouted, "No TPP! No TPP!"
Protesters disrupted Rep. Elijah Cummings' speech as they shouted, "No TPP! No TPP!"
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Now, convention fights! TPP unrest was obvious from the opening gavel on Monday. Less than an hour into the event, protesters holding anti-TPP signs gathered on the convention floor, positioning themselves directly in front of the podium. Midway through a speech by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), they unfurled a banner and began chanting, “No TPP! No TPP!” They disrupted the remaining four minutes of the congressman’s talk.

Cummings is a progressive. So are TPP opponents. But this wasn’t an unfocused act of frustration. During negotiations over the Democratic Party platform, Cummings had served as the chief defender of the trade deal, trying to block anti-TPP language to avoid “embarrassing the president,” as Heather Gautney, a pro-Sanders member of the platform committee, detailed in The Nation. Protesters on Monday were putting TPP supporters on notice: Even Cummings doesn’t get a free pass.

The TPP agitation was heavily concentrated among Sanders delegates. Although both candidates oppose the deal, Clinton helped work on the pact during her time as secretary of state, and her vice presidential pick, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), supported the deal before joining the ticket. The choice of Kaine, in particular, has left many in the Democratic coalition skeptical about the strength of Clinton’s anti-TPP conviction.

DNC speakers and presentations kept up the pressure throughout the night. The heads of multiple unions blasted TPP from the party-sanctified podium. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) mocked Donald Trump for relying on overseas labor for his line of clothing. A comedy video from former Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee and Ken Jeong did the same: Trump claims he’s against trade deals that ship jobs overseas, but he makes his shirts in Bangladesh! And his ties in China!

It’s a clever dig ― although, like Kaine, Goolsbee is a recent convert. The economist has long defended free trade deals. In 2008, then an adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign, Goolsbee sparked a minor scandal when he was caught reassuring Canadian officials that Obama wasn’t really serious about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement despite his campaign rhetoric. NAFTA is the blueprint for TPP.

But the Sanders delegates against TPP aren’t all Rust Belt nostalgics longing for factory jobs of yore. One Pittsburgh delegate expressed opposition to the deal on environmental grounds, siding with the Sierra Club and other groups that expect the pact to increase trade in fossil fuels. A delegate from Iowa cited the lack of wage growth in Mexico after the passage of NAFTA and referenced the rights of the global poor. Yet another from California was concerned about the terms granting drug companies long-term monopolies, which would allow them to increase the price of prescription medications.

These complaints share a common theme. For different reasons, the delegates are all worried that greater concentration of corporate power will erode living standards for ordinary people. TPP then is a perfect distillation of the dominant theme of Sanders’ campaign: Major corporations have too much power over America.

The anti-TPP activism continued on the convention floor until the end of Monday night. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), arguably Sanders’ closest ideological ally in the upper chamber, received a lukewarm reception, peppered with occasional protest chants from Bernie voters still upset with her late endorsement of Clinton. The one issue that silenced the haters and elicited a genuine roar from the crowd? Her call to kill the trade deal.

Bernie Sanders, speaking at the convention, urged his supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton but keep up the revolution.
Bernie Sanders, speaking at the convention, urged his supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton but keep up the revolution.
Mike Segar/Reuters

Then it was Sanders’ turn.

“I am happy to tell you that at the Democratic Platform Committee there was a significant coming together between the two campaigns, and we produced by far the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party,” he said. Among the points of proof: It “calls for strong opposition to job-killing free trade agreements like the TPP.”

That comment was something of a political finger in the party’s eye. Cummings’ efforts during the platform talks were at least partly successful: The platform does not explicitly reject the TPP. But it describes the kinds of deals the party would reject in terms that TPP critics say apply to the Pacific pact.

“We will oppose trade agreements that do not support good American jobs, raise wages, and improve our national security,” the platform states. “We should never enter into a trade agreement that prevents our government, or other governments, from putting in place rules that protect the environment, food safety, or the health of American citizens or others around the world.”

The Obama administration, of course, denies that any of these things apply to TPP. And activists in Monday’s crowd knew what the platform failed to do ― that’s why they targeted Cummings. But they also appreciated Sanders’ verbal maneuver. If Democrats broadly accept that the platform language is a rejection of TPP, it will be.

So they cut off Sanders’ speech with another round of “No TPP! No TPP!” Then Bernie gave them marching orders: When Obama pushes for a vote to ratify the deal in the lame-duck session of Congress, it’s their job to stop it.

Sanders spent much of his speech urging his followers to keep up the political revolution after the November election. A TPP vote in the lame-duck session could be their first major test.

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