Democrats and the TPP: Who Speaks for the Future?

Robert Borosage

Texas populist Jim Hightower will present the Democratic Party platform committee with a Bernie Sanders-sponsored amendment to the draft platform when it meets in Orlando this Friday and Saturday. It will read:

It is the policy of the Democratic Party that the Trans-Pacific Partnership should not get a vote in the lame duck session of Congress and beyond.

This should be a no-brainer. All of the Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination were opposed to the TPP trade deal, as of course is Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

The Clinton campaign has emphasized that there is “no daylight between Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton on TPP.” Were that true, the 187-member platform committee would pass the amendment unanimously. But in the drafting committee, the Clinton delegates and most of the Democratic National Committee delegates voted against similar language and instead forced through language that states only that “there are a diversity of views in the party” on the TPP and reaffirms that any trade deal “must protect workers and the environment.”

Say what? Democrats are a big tent. There is a “diversity of views” on many issues. That does not keep the party majority from taking a clear stand in the platform. The primary reason offered to mute opposition to the TPP was that the platform should not “embarrass” President Obama, who appears intent on forcing a vote on the TPP in the lame-duck session. But President Obama isn’t on the Democratic ticket, and many of the other policies of the platform diverge from his agenda. His apparent insistence that the platform remain neutral on the TPP will surely be used by Trump to prove that Clinton’s stated opposition is a lie. That will add to doubts already widespread given the support she and her husband gave to NAFTA and other trade accords, including initially the TPP itself.

The vote in Orlando will be a big, defining vote. Who speaks for the party? A lame-duck president pushing a trade deal that is opposed by both the presumptive nominee and her leading opponent, or the future nominee and the vast majority of Democratic primary voters and activists?

Classic Example Of Rigged Rules

The TPP is constructed on the same noxious frame as the North American Free Trade Agreement and other corporate trade and investment deals. It is written by, for and with the multinational banks and corporations. Like NAFTA, it is a classic example of how the rules are rigged against America’s working people. Not surprisingly, it is championed by a huge corporate lobby and opposed by virtually the entirety of the Democratic Party’s activist base – labor, environmentalists, consumer groups, farmers, progressives, public health groups and more.

The TPP simply extends what have been ruinous corporate trade policies. Under these policies, we’ve run unprecedented trade deficits, shipping good jobs abroad and putting pressure on wages at home. Current trade deficits run at about 3 percent of GDP a year – some $500 billion a year – undermining any recovery and contributing directly to stagnant wages, particularly at a time when interest rates are already near zero and can’t be lowered to counter the drag created by the deficits.

Like NAFTA, the TPP also creates special rights and private tribunals – for multinational corporations while undermining the ability of Americans to determine their own destiny. It’s preposterous Investor State Dispute Settlement system gives corporations the right to sue the U.S. for damages that any regulation might arguably have on future expected profits. Under this provision in NAFTA, a Canadian company is now suing for $15 billion in damages from U.S. taxpayers because the Obama administration sensibly decided not to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

It is now generally accepted that our trade policies have contributed to declining wages among America’s workers. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning, and pro-free trade economist has admitted that “the elite case for ever-freer trade is largely a scam.” He concludes that “much of the elite defense of globalization is basically dishonest: false claims of inevitability, scare tactics (protectionism causes depressions!), vastly exaggerated claims for the benefits of trade liberalization and the costs of protection, hand-waving away the large distributional effects that are what standard models actually predict.“

Honest trade advocates admit that there are losers and winners in trade, but argue that the winners can be taxed to compensate the losers. But of course that never happens. Instead the winners use their increased wealth and power to drive through more top-end tax cuts and corporate tax loopholes that benefit the few while the losers have been left to sink on their own.

The TPP – and the ideological devotion to corporate-defined “free trade” – is central to the failed bipartisan economic policies that have devastated the middle class, and contributed to ever-increasing inequality. If Democrats are to address rising inequality and rebuild the middle class, they must define a new, far more balanced trade policy. That policy would end the private corporate courts created by investor-state dispute settlement clauses, challenge currency manipulation and other non-tariff means used by countries to capture markets, enforce labor rights and consumer and environmental protections and move to more, but balanced trade. No trade accords would go forward until the much-advertised measures to reimburse the “losers” were in fact in place – in income support, in training, in industrial policy and more.

This isn’t about deference to a lame-duck president; it is about the future direction of the country and the commitment of the party and its nominee. If Democrats can’t state clearly where they stand in their platform, few voters will believe that they are prepared to take on the corporate lobby to forge a new course.

Trump has made trade a centerpiece of his campaign, a key to his strategy of winning the votes of working people, particularly in the swing industrial states. There is no question that the failure to state clear opposition to the TPP in the platform will further undermine Hillary Clinton’s already suspect credibility on this central issue.

Will Labor Stand Up?

Clinton, of course, doesn’t want to offend the president, since she is counting on his help in rousing Democratic voters, particularly African Americans. But if the president’s insistence contributes to Trump’s ability to tar Democrats as corporate traders, it will may cost votes and turnout up and down the ticket.

To extricate Clinton from this dilemma, labor needs to stand up. Labor union delegates will constitute the defining vote in Orlando and in Philadelphia. If they join Sanders in supporting the Hightower amendment, it will pass. That may irritate the president but it will greatly assist Hillary Clinton and other Democrats on the ballot. And it will speak clearly about an issue that labor union leaders argue is central to the rebuilding of a strong middle class, and the revival of organized labor.

Labor leaders can’t claim that stopping TPP is an urgent priority while simultaneously bowing to the president’s insistence that the platform duck the issue. Nor can they argue to their members that Clinton is better than Trump on trade, if the Democratic platform is silent on the TPP and defers to the president’s plans to push it in a lame-duck session of Congress.

Will labor stand up? That will be a key question this weekend in Orlando. If the Hightower amendment is voted down in Orlando, the Sanders delegates will demand that the full Democratic convention debate and vote on the issue. The question isn’t about deference; it is about direction. And that can’t be ducked.

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