The Democrats Are Really Divided On Trade

Matt Vespa
|
Posted: May 15, 2015 10:00 AM
The Democrats Are Really Divided On Trade

While the motion to move debate forward on granting President Obama fast-track (or trade promotion) authority clinched 65 votes today, it still has a bumpy road to final passage; it becomes even more treacherous when this bill reaches the House of Representatives. Yet, the divide on trade seems to be even deeper than Democrats’ division on gun control. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats decided to block granting President Obama this authority, which proved to be a rather embarrassing defeat at the hands of his own party. Moreover, it placed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in an awkward position as well; he reportedly wanted to “flex” his muscles on the trade bill. Luckily, pro-trade Democrats and Republicans regrouped, the former group spoke with the president, and McConnell altered the deal so Democrats could vote on African Growth and Opportunity Act and a customs enforcement bill–which included provisions to combat currency manipulation­–on their own. The currency manipulation provision is opposed by Japan and Malaysia–and it could torpedo the whole Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Hence, why Obama is probably going to veto the bill if it comes across his desk, though it cleared a path to move forward on TPA authority. 

Yet, if the Senate grants Obama TPA authority, it moves to the House, where 150 House Democrats, the majority of the caucus, have already signed a letter opposing granting the president such authority on this trade deal. Speaker Boehner better have some Aleve stashed in his office because 60 House Republicans have also signaled they would vote with the anti-trade Democrats (via The Economist):

…in the House of Representatives. There Mr Obama’s trade ambitions must run a double gauntlet. To his right lurk perhaps 60 hardline Republicans wary of granting him extra authority on anything. To his left stand as many as 150 House Democrats who either dislike free trade or fear the trade-sceptics who run big unions.

A longer-term philosophical clash lurks beneath this week’s squabbling (loftily dismissed by a White House spokesman as a “procedural snafu”). Mr Obama calls TPP a chance to write global trading rules on America’s terms, which if missed will give China and other rising powers a free hand. But many in his own party take a more defensive view of trade. Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, the leading Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, says that TPP must include stronger language to make foreign rivals protect workers’ rights and the environment, and avoid currency manipulation, to ensure a “level playing-field” for American workers. “The president says we need to write [global trade] rules, not China. I agree, so let’s write the right rules,” Mr. Levin says.

As a result it will take massive Republican support to pass TPA. Hillary Clinton, the putative Democratic presidential nominee, said little during the TPA rebellion, though as Mr. Obama’s first secretary of state she said TPP could set a “gold standard” for trade agreements. Her silence is hardly brave, but it does reflect the realities of a divided party.

One of the biggest opponents of the TPP is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and the president has gone after her for being “wrong” on this deal. The president’s criticism has drawn the ire of progressives, who have labeled the attacks as “sexist.” How thin-skinned are these people? It’s almost as if we’re approaching a point where we can’t even criticize female politicians. After all, what Obama said about Warren wasn’t all that bad. Nevertheless, everyone is asking, why so serious, Mr. President?

Via The Hill:

You and I can disagree about policy, but I can’t call you a bad person or impugn your motives or anything else — except at great risk,” Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), a liberal Democrat who’s undecided but leaning against the trade bill, said Wednesday.

“Civility in this business is important, because tomorrow I have to work with you, tomorrow I may need you badly,” he added. “A lot of people are standing around saying, ‘You know something, this is getting to be a personal thing, and that’s not the way we want to go here.’ ... He went quite a ways with her and I think probably he won’t go that far again.”

Appearing Wednesday on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) offered a similar critique, saying he was “disappointed” that Obama adopted an “insulting” tone toward Warren, while “acting like she has no legitimate point of view.”

“If I was trying to persuade a friend, I wouldn’t start out by saying how deficient they were,” said Ellison, a long-time opponent of trade deals who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “If you want your friends to go for something, meet their concerns as opposed to putting them down.”

Via Politico:

“For six years, we have wanted him to be the president we voted for,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), laying out what he says is the liberal mindset. “We’re still waiting.”

“President Obama has never attacked Republican Leader Mitch McConnell the way he’s attacking Elizabeth Warren,” the Progressive Change Committee carped in an email to members.

No, people around the White House say, the only difference now is that the president is going after Democrats the same way he went after Republicans, and importantly, on something that might actually pass. They loved it during the shutdown when he sneered at the GOP proposals and refused to budge, and they’re just upset to see him treat them the same way.

On that, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), said he could agree, even though he’s not ever going to agree with Obama on trade.

“He’s not using any different rhetoric here than he has on other issues. It just happens that he’s speaking to Democrats,” Murphy said. “Democrats shouldn’t take it personally, just like Republicans shouldn’t take it personally.”

Andrew Flowers over at FiveThirtyEight  has a good post on how Democratic base has changed since 1993, but their position of trade has remained the same, citing similar heavy Democratic opposition to NAFTA and the free trade agreement with South Korea in 2011. Flowers said the decline in Democratic support for trade deals is related to their share of manufacturing-intensive districts on the electoral map. It’s a good read.

Right now, the last big thing Obama can do as president pretty much rests on the backs of Republicans delivering the votes. They agree with the president on trade–and almost every 2016 presidential candidate, except Gov. Mike Huckabee, supports TPP. For Democrats, the division is deep, almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. Yet, this "Obama is sexist/War on Women" whining on the left for criticizing members of his own party is, as Guy noted, a “popcorn” worthy moment.