Be still, my foolish heart. While the media has mainly focused on divisions within the GOP as the presidential primary prelims have unfolded, they have caught up to the internecine fight triggered by Barack Obama’s embrace of free trade. Moderate Democrats have backed his call for plenary power to create a free trade agreement with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but progressives led by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have stymied attempts in Congress to approve that authority — in part because the White House has kept its terms under tight wraps.
At first, the public dispute had an air of kabuki theater to it, but it’s getting much more significant of late. Warren has accused Obama of attempting to hoodwink American workers, and escalated that rhetoric to add that Obama wants to gut Dodd-Frank through the trade agreement. Privately, Politico’s Ben White reports, the White House has exploded in “outrage” at the charges:
Supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the White House, Congress and the business community are growing increasingly alarmed at the escalating rhetoric. Warren’s arguments, these people say, are increasingly wide of the mark and easily rebutted. But administration officials are at odds over how aggressively to take her on, knowing that a sustained attack would only arouse her supporters in the progressive and labor movements.
Lay down with the dogs, get up with fleas, etc.
Obama has already called Warren “wrong” on trade. But in private, administration officials fume in much more colorful terms over Warren’s attacks, calling them “baseless” and “desperate,” with “no bearing or relation to anything we are doing.” They also suggest the Massachusetts senator knows going after trade deals will only further energize the “Draft Warren” movement that desperately wants her to run for president.
The Massachusetts Democrat has been a thorn in the side of the administration on other issues, including recently torpedoing the president’s nomination for a top Treasury Department post. But the stakes are far higher on the trade deal. The fast-track bill still lacks the estimated 20 to 40 Democratic votes necessary for passage in the House, creating the very real possibility that the president’s own party will deny him what he considers a key legacy-building achievement.
Their anger is amply demonstrated in this no-fingerprints leak. One unnamed official seems eager to paint Warren as flailing on the fringes, a remarkable attack given the embrace of progressives by Obama since his second straight midterm disaster:
“Are [Warren’s] arguments a sign of desperation given the tide shifting among the public, particularly Democrats?” one person close to the White House said, citing recent poll numbers showing the public growing less wary of possible negative effects of international trade accords.
It might be desperation, although there is a simpler explanation — this is exactly who Warren is. Her efforts to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau relied on the same kind of breathless scare-mongering that turned out to be effective after the collapse of the housing bubble that Congressional intervention created. The White House doesn’t seem to mind Warren’s wild attacks when they’re aimed at common opponents, but suddenly she’s “desperate” when Warren directs them at free-trade agreements. Let me fetch my smallest violin.
Desperate or not, Warren’s not winning the argument. Under pressure from constituents, fellow progressive Patty Murray has reversed course and backed Obama on free trade:
It’s a delicate situation for Murray, given her interest in running for Democratic whip after the 2016 elections and the fact that two-thirds of the Democratic caucus opposes fast-track.
Nearly 40 percent of Washington state’s jobs are tied to exports, according to local business leaders, and she doesn’t want to play with fire when she’s facing reelection next year.
“I support the bills that came out of the [Finance Committee],” she told The Hill Wednesday.
Murray said trade “is a huge part of our economy.”
She added, “What we grow, what we make in Washington state is sold worldwide and we have to be part of writing the rules of the road. If we leave ourselves out of that, we’ll be dictated to by other countries on how our products are going to be sold and accepted to markets.”
That’s pretty much common sense. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of that in the Democratic caucus, especially among those attempting to lift Warren up as the progressive rally point in Washington. If that effort falters, it will be interesting to see whether Hillary Clinton ends her attempts to tack left in the primary.
In the meantime … pass the popcorn.