In Defense of Hillary Clinton on the TPP

People who know me can vouch for the fact that I don’t defend Hillary Clinton very often. This may be the first time ever. But I feel compelled to defend her a bit on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

She has gotten a lot of criticism – including in Monday night’s debate – for flip-flopping on her position on the TPP. As Secretary of State, she was for it.  Now, she is against it.

But it’s important to be clear on her role in trade policy as Secretary of State, in two ways.

First, in that position, she worked for President Obama. He was setting the agenda. He decided the TPP would be a useful part of his “pivot to Asia” on foreign policy. I have not heard anything about the internal cabinet debate on the TPP; for all we know, she may have argued against it and lost. But once the decision was made to pursue the TPP, she couldn’t take an opposing position, unless she wanted to resign over it.

Second, the State Department does a lot of things related to foreign policy, including a little bit related to trade. However, trade is far from the main task there. In fact, it is the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office that takes the lead on trade. So it’s not as though Hillary Clinton took the Secretary of State job thinking, “I can’t wait to negotiate trade deals.” Basically, her job was to manage foreign policy in general, one small aspect of which was – in the context of overall foreign policy – talking about trade deals that someone else was negotiating.

In addition, keep in mind that when she was Secretary of State, the TPP was still in the early stages of negotiations. No doubt many people were disappointed with some of the final terms, so it’s not completely disingenuous to see the completed deal and decide you don’t like some particular part of it.

That doesn’t mean Hillary Clinton has been very good on trade in general. She hasn’t. Generally speaking, I get the sense that she treats trade as a practical political problem to manage, rather than a policy she believes in or cares about. At the same time, given her flexibility on this issue, she may find a way to push trade policy forward. She has mentioned specific things she doesn’t like about the TPP.  It is not hard to imagine that, as President, she would look for ways to fix what she sees as flaws in the TPP.  In that sense, she is probably a lot better than the alternative.