On the issue of trade, Hillary Clinton is walking a tightrope.
The prohibitive Democratic nominee for the presidency in 2016 is facing substantial pressure from her left to denounce the Trans-Pacific Partnership as have progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. If she does, however, Clinton will open herself up to the charge that she is flip-flopping on the issue. As a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, Clinton called the TPP “the gold standard in trade agreements.” As recently as last year, Clinton wrote in her autobiography that the TPP sets “high standards” and “if implemented and enforced, should benefit businesses and workers.” In recent days, the former secretary of state’s campaign communications officials have sounded more cautious notes on this trade agreement, but Clinton has not personally indicated that she has changed her mind on the TPP.
To backtrack from her past statements about this agreement and trade in general is to be seen as pandering to the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. But Clinton might have to do just that, no matter how unseemly it will appear to outside observers. “Unions, environmentalists and grass roots activists—all Democratic foot soldiers in presidential races—hope to see Mrs. Clinton join a liberal alliance that wants the deal to be killed,” The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. “Mrs. Clinton has a complicated history with free-trade agreements dating back a quarter century. When she has been a candidate for elective office, she has typically been more skeptical of free-trade deals than when she’s not.”
For their part, the White House is not helping Clinton maintain this balancing act. The New York Democrat was surely furious to learn that White House Deputy Press Sec. Eric Shultz told reporters on Wednesday that, as far as they know, Hillary Clinton is foursquare behind them and fully supportive of the TPP. “I haven’t seen anything to suggest any distance,” Shultz told reporters when asked if they think Clinton is behind Obama’s push to pass the new trade deal.
“Asked if the White House considers Clinton an ally on trade, Schultz said yes,” Politico reported.
Clinton’s adversaries have seized on her silence surrounding this controversial trade deal. O’Malley released a video this week positioning himself as the 2016 candidate most opposed to this trade agreement. He further indicated that he is more in line with progressives like Warren on this matter than is Clinton.
The former secretary of state finds herself increasingly without allies on the issue of trade. In a piece for Politico Magazine, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ripped into the TPP for its potential to undermine state laws.
“One provision of TPP would create an entirely separate system of justice,” Schneiderman wrote, “special tribunals to hear and decide claims by foreign investors that their corporate interests are being harmed by a nation that is part of the agreement.”
Proponents of TPP note that similar tribunal constructs have been included in other international trade agreements involving the United States, often in order to encourage and protect our investments in countries with shaky, corrupt or even nonexistent civil justice systems. But more than in past trade agreements, a number of the nations expected to participate in TPP have the resources and legal sophistication to exploit the agreement and turn it against our laws and system of justice.
Maybe that’s why the agreement is being negotiated in secret. If it weren’t for WikiLeaks and a few media outlets, we wouldn’t even know about this dangerous provision. The effort by negotiators to keep their discussions from the public is telling.
Schneiderman, a figure who fancies himself a progressive’s progressive, serves in the administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a longtime Clinton ally and a key supporter of her 2016 campaign.
The president’s isolation on trade is now, thanks to the White House, Clinton’s isolation, too. She cannot repudiate the TPP without also directly contradicting her old boss, the President of the United States and the head of her party. If she doesn’t, she creates even more space for a Democratic challenger to carve off some of her progressive support. It’s not a great position to be in, and Clinton is almost certainly cursing the White House this morning for putting her there.