How Much Longer Can Hillary Clinton Go Without a Firm Position on Trade?

Clinton’s potential 2016 opponents are trying to put her in an uncomfortable spot on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Hillary Clinton shouts out to college students waiting for her to leave after speaking during the Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for Advancing Women in Peace and Security at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, April 22, 2015.
National Journal
Eric Garcia
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Eric Garcia
April 22, 2015, 11:08 a.m.

The Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship may soon prove to be a head­ache for Hil­lary Clin­ton as her po­ten­tial chal­lengers are mak­ing their stances on the deal known—and she’s so far stay­ing blurry.

When Clin­ton served as sec­ret­ary of State, she said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion-backed trade agree­ment was the “gold stand­ard” for pro­mot­ing free, open, trans­par­ent, and fair trade. Now, she’s hedging her sup­port, say­ing Tues­day that any agree­ment must pro­duce jobs, in­crease prosper­ity, and strengthen Amer­ic­an se­cur­ity.

Clin­ton’s po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial op­pon­ents have been vehe­mently and more defin­it­ively cri­ti­ciz­ing the trade deal for weeks. And on Wed­nes­day, former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is ex­pec­ted to run in 2016, called Clin­ton’s shift in lan­guage a “polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated flip-flop.”

“These new re­ser­va­tions are con­veni­ently timed,” Bush wrote in a post on Me­di­um that em­phas­izes his own sup­port for the deal. Bush com­pared it to Clin­ton’s shift in rhet­or­ic re­gard­ing the North Amer­ic­an Free Trade Agree­ment among the United States, Canada, and Mex­ico, which was signed by her hus­band. She said it had not lived up to its prom­ises when she star­ted cam­paign­ing for the 2008 Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion.

Many Re­pub­lic­ans, such as Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and House Ways and Means Chair­man Paul Ry­an, are sup­port­ive of the trade deal and tend to sup­port free trade in gen­er­al. But many pro­gress­ive Demo­crats have been crit­ic­al of free-trade deals, say­ing they hurt Amer­ic­an work­ers and can lead to lost jobs or lower wages.

“We’ve heard over and over again, not just more re­cently but over a gen­er­a­tion, that trade agree­ments and the pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity that’s con­nec­ted to them will lead to tre­mend­ous job growth and tre­mend­ous be­ne­fits for states like Pennsylvania, but I have not seen evid­ence of that case,” Sen. Bob Ca­sey told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, a likely Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial con­tender, has called the TPP a “bad” trade deal. In an email to sup­port­ers Wed­nes­day, O’Mal­ley stated his op­pos­i­tion to the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship with a sub­ject line that’s a near-dir­ect dig at Clin­ton, play­ing off her re­cent mem­oir: “Hard Choice?”

As a can­did­ate with no of­fi­cial of­fice—and very little polit­ic­al sup­port for a pres­id­en­tial run—there is little O’Mal­ley can do to force Clin­ton’s hand on the TPP.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders, an in­de­pend­ent from Ver­mont who con­sist­ently cri­ti­cizes the TPP and has ex­pressed in­terest in run­ning for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, act­ively tried to block pro­gress on le­gis­la­tion Wed­nes­day when he ob­jec­ted to a re­quest for un­an­im­ous con­sent by Mc­Con­nell to al­low the cham­ber’s fin­ance com­mit­tee to meet for more than two hours while the Sen­ate is in ses­sion for its markup of trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity le­gis­la­tion. Sanders, like the rest of the non-Clin­ton Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, has very little pub­lic sup­port for a can­did­acy. But he’s us­ing his ca­pa­city as a sen­at­or to act­ively stall le­gis­la­tion, which in­dir­ectly puts Clin­ton’s po­s­i­tion un­der a mag­ni­fy­ing glass.

“In­stead of rub­ber-stamp­ing the agree­ment, Con­gress and the pub­lic de­serve a fair chance to learn what’s in the pro­pos­al,” Sanders said in a state­ment.

The Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity bill, which would al­low trade deals like the TPP to be sub­ject to an up-or-down vote with no amend­ments, caught Sen­ate Demo­crats off guard last week when a hear­ing was an­nounced be­fore the le­gis­la­tion was re­leased.  

Without un­an­im­ous con­sent, the markup was delayed. Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Or­rin Hatch said the com­mit­tee would have its markup in the af­ter­noon, as op­posed to the morn­ing when it was sched­uled.

By us­ing Sen­ate pro­ced­ure to delay markup on TPA, Sanders clearly ar­tic­u­lated his op­pos­i­tion to free trade, and he was praised by groups op­posed to it, like the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Work­ers of Amer­ica and Pub­lic Cit­izen, show­ing not only is he on their side, but he will take ac­tion to put the brakes on le­gis­la­tion.

Neither Sanders’s nor O’Mal­ley’s ac­tions were dir­ect call-outs to Clin­ton. But they were clear mes­sages of solid­ar­ity to pro­gress­ives, giv­ing them a plat­form to stand on and a way to stand out among Demo­crats while Clin­ton con­tin­ues to be more guarded.

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