Did Harry Reid kill the trade agenda? The Senate Majority Leader is no champion of economic freedom to be sure, but his opposition to the fast track bill doesn't kill it. It merely strengthens the hand of his colleagues who might support a more protectionist version of the legislation. It's an invitation to negotiate.
Those who may have thought a fast track bill could be plopped down and rammed through a skeptical Democratic caucus — especially with its only Democratic sponsor, Senator Max Baucus, not sticking around to see it through — failed to account for history or for the consequences of the president's refusal to do anything to soften the ground for trade legislation in Washington. If the trade agenda implodes, blame President Obama and nobody else. His failure to invest in a straightforward narrative to reassure doubters and explain trade's enormous benefits has yielded commensurate dividends.
While he has encouraged his trade negotiators' to bring home big "21st Century" trade deals, which include rules that penetrate more deeply into what was once considered domestic policy space, the president has never attempted to assuage concerns, correct misconceptions, or make an affirmative public case for why trade (or these new rules) are essential to the nation's prosperity. That has left a vacuum gladly filled by organized, anti-trade interests, who have spread rumors and preyed on the public's worst fears.
During the past year, as domestic opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was metastasizing, the administration issued nary a peep in rebuttal to allegations of imminent job losses, erosion of labor and product safety standards, environmental catastrophe, loss of internet freedoms, inaccessibility to medicines, threats to the food supply chain and other aspects of public health, or the acquiescence of policy making to multinational corporations. That silence lent credibility to claims that were mostly absurd, inspiring more opposition. The White House seems never to have anticipated the need to engage in domestic dialogue or negotiations that would require the president to not only stand up to his traditional allies on the Left, but to stand with congressional Republicans.
So reluctant is President Obama to challenge Democratic Party dogma with the specifics of his trade agenda that he decided, instead, to kick that can down the road for three years, as his negotiators went full steam ahead on TPP and launched the transatlantic talks without adequate knowledge of the trade negotiating objectives and parameters Congress would demand in exchange for the fast track consideration of those deals he now seeks. Despite the administration's assurances that Congress was being kept in the loop about the TPP every step of the way, the idea of retrofitting the fast track language to the terms of TPP, instead of the other way around, was always presumptuous and risky, and that approach has rubbed some legislators the wrong way. Whatever political potholes the president sought to avoid by bypassing fast track authority at the outset have grown deeper and wider.
What explains this illogical tack? Uncertainty? Timidity? Both, and perhaps a heavy does of ambivalence.
The president remains deeply conflicted on trade, beholden to incongruous beliefs. He acknowledges the imperative of U.S. global economic engagement, but seems also to believe that trade exacerbates income inequality and environmental degradation. He likes the idea of boosting exports, but cannot manage to accept the fact that trade agreements also mean more import competition. For those who fail to see trade as the mutually beneficial exchange between willing parties that it is but instead view it as a zero -sum game between "us" and "them," imports are to be minimized — and their impact swept under the rug, if you're a politician unwilling to take a stand.
As I elaborated in this column two months back:
Presumably, the president's reluctance reflects the reality that his party in Congress largely opposes trade agreements. More than 150 of 200 House Democrats have registered their opposition to granting their president TPA [Trade Promotion Authority]. He knows how they feel. He was with them not too long ago, and part of him may still be. As has been the case for five years, the president remains unwilling to challenge his party's orthodoxy or to pick a fight with congressional Democrats or the unions and environmental groups to whom they are beholden.
A president who says he will "work to enact bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers and environment and to open markets to new goods stamped ‘Made in the U.S.A'," is reinforcing the myths that sustain trade's skeptics and hindering, not helping, the effort. Those words do not constitute leadership on trade. Those are the words of protectionists.
It is obvious that the president is uncomfortable making an affirmative, public pitch for the trade agenda his administration has pursued and, in some sense, wishes this whole trade liberalization thing would just go away. In that regard, by saying "no" and "not now," Senator Reid has given the president license to continue to equivocate, as he waits to see where the winds blow in Congress on this.
If fast track is granted, the White House can spin whatever amendments were made to the original bill as sensible improvements sought by Democrats in keeping with the president's promises to protect the interest of workers and the environment. If fast track is rejected or derailed until after the election, the White House can blame congressional Republicans and business for being too unwilling to compromise.
But how the president ultimately spins it depends on which outcome he actually favors. At this late stage, the jury's still out.