Hillary's Hard Choices: TPA's biggest loser

Now that the dust has cleared on the fight over Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the fast-track legislation that Democrats nearly denied their own president for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, we can look at the winners and losers of the debate. There aren’t too many of the former, actually. The media wants to paint Obama as a winner, although as Chris Cillizza notes, it’s arguable, and one of very few Obama wins on policy in his second term:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s reversal — she had previously said that the votes were simply not there for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program to compensate workers who lose jobs because of trade deals, in the House and had voted against it last week — essentially ends a standoff between Congress and the White House over the parameters by which Obama can negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership.

What’s fascinating about this fight is that it was congressional Republicans — Obama’s longtime and sworn enemies — who held firm to push the trade measures over the line. It was an unlikely partnership that shows just how much the president is focused on building pieces of a decidedly scant collection of second-term legacy items. …

Obama was desperately in need of a major second-term accomplishment after watching gun control and immigration reform collapse in Congress. And that McConnell and Boehner were equally desperate to prove that they could govern and not simply obstruct.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Obama got a huge vote of no confidence from his own party on his foreign policy. He may have won TPA, but Democrats on Capitol Hill all but confirmed his status as a lame duck.

Republicans didn’t fare much better, although they’re at least more united on the actual policy position of free trade. In their all-out effort to grant Obama the traditional leeway given other presidents on trade, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell angered their base, especially with the arm-twisting that took place before the vote and the now-seemingly-ending retribution afterward. Democrats should be the ones getting their arms twisted and punished for a vote of no confidence in their own President, not Republicans punished for having very understandable reluctance to give Obama any extraordinary executive authority after his track record of the last few years. If Obama can’t deliver sufficient votes, then that’s his problem, not Mark Meadows’ or Ken Buck’s. Republicans will remember this for a very long time.

The biggest loser, though, is Hillary Clinton. Once the TPP and TPA became a toxic issue with progressives, Hillary ran for cover despite spending three years of her term as Secretary of State extolling the deal.  Jake Tapper found forty-five separate occasions where Hillary endorsed TPP as US policy while at State, but it didn’t end there. Her memoir Hard Choices, published in 2014 a year after she left State, has only one substantive passage on TPP, but it’s significant:



Note that in 2014, Hillary called TPP “the signature economic pillar of our strategy in Asia,” and “benefit American businesses and workers.” And she should know — Hillary was in charge of American diplomacy while this agreement was being negotiated. Even though she leaves the caveat to “reserve judgment until we can evaluate the final proposed agreement,” she clearly favored getting to that point with TPP — and that requires TPA, on which she hemmed and hawed for weeks before finally stating last week that she would “probably not” vote for it. Without TPA, there would be no TPP … and given the status of the progressive grip on Democrats, maybe that’s what Hillary really wanted all along. It’s very clear that she wasn’t at all interested in fighting for her “signature economic pillar,” and also very clear that she didn’t want to get into its details on the stump.

The only way out of that conundrum would have been for TPA to go down to defeat, so that the terms of TPP would never come to light. Now, as I argue in my column for The Fiscal Times, Hillary will find herself in a no-win situation on trade:

If TPP was both as good and as important as Hillary described it in her memoir, then why object to TPA at all? Democrats opposed TPA entirely to prevent TPP.

The only way out of this conundrum for Hillary would have been the failure of the TPA bill – and she almost got her way with this last-minute nudge. Instead, GOP leadership and Obama twisted enough arms to finally get TPA passed, which means that the US can finalize TPP and present it to the Senate. That will need to happen before the 2016 election, as the Senate will no doubt want to debate it thoroughly, and a post-election session of Congress may pass on taking broad action on trade after the US elects a new president to take over from Obama, no matter who it is.

When TPP comes to the Senate, everyone will finally get a close look at it. If it’s as bad as progressives believe, then Hillary will come under fire for having worked on a bad trade agreement, just as progressives still blame Bill Clinton for NAFTA. If it turns out to be benign, that will raise questions about Hillary’s lack of political fortitude in failing to support her own initiative. She will be accused of being willing to torpedo what she herself called “a strategic initiative” to strengthen the US in a very critical theater, all to pander to the Democratic grassroots for her own selfish career aspirations.

Either way, Hillary looks gutless and pandering — demonstrating the antithesis of leadership. In a crowded field, that makes her the biggest loser on TPA.