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Hillary Clinton's Free Trade Flip-Flop: Why She Should Embrace Obama’s Trade Deal (Again)

As secretary of state, Clinton hailed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as “the gold standard in trade agreements.” By now demanding its defeat, Rich Barlow says she is playing politics. In the Nov. 10, 2011 speech at the University of Hawaii, pictured here, Clinton said, "The TPP will bring together economies from across the Pacific, developed and developing alike, into a single 21st century trading community." (Marco Garcia/ AP file)
As secretary of state, Clinton hailed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as “the gold standard in trade agreements.” By now demanding its defeat, Rich Barlow says she is playing politics. In the Nov. 10, 2011 speech at the University of Hawaii, pictured here, Clinton said, "The TPP will bring together economies from across the Pacific, developed and developing alike, into a single 21st century trading community." (Marco Garcia/ AP file)
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Free trade is to Democrats what gay marriage is to Republicans: a base-scaring boogeyman that, regardless of facts, forces politicians to play to their parties’ cheap seats. In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama hinted that he’d renegotiate NAFTA; an aide reassured Canada that he didn’t really mean it, and once elected, Obama did no such thing. Now Hillary Clinton, who as Obama’s secretary of state hailed his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as “the gold standard in trade agreements,” has done a 180, joining key Democratic constituencies — labor, the green movement, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s fan club — demanding its defeat.

Not all of the just-concluded deal is yet public. Conspiracy theorists braying about the secret negotiations notwithstanding, the details will emerge over the 90 days required for Congress to publicly consider the 12-country agreement. Barring any damning revelations — and there’s one issue about which the president must address legitimate questions (more on that later) -- Clinton is wrong: the deal’s pros outweigh its cons.

Free trade is to Democrats what gay marriage is to Republicans: a base-scaring boogeyman that, regardless of facts, forces politicians to play to their parties’ cheap seats.

I say this as someone who shared concerns about earlier, leaked versions. But Obama was true to his word, bringing home a final agreement that markedly improved the problematic parts — including the very ones Clinton fingered as justifying her opposition. That’s a giveaway that her new position is playing politics. Indeed, a staggering number of political observers across the ideological spectrum (here and here, for example) predict that, if she becomes president, she will, in the pungent phrase of one, “do a screaming U-turn like a diesel Volkswagen” and back the TPP.

Clinton’s stated beefs are that the deal would make life-saving drugs prohibitively expensive in the developing world and that it doesn’t do enough to curb other countries’ currency manipulations. As to the first, if the TPP really privileged Big Pharma profits over impoverished foreign patients, the drug companies wouldn’t be kvetching about the deal, which denied their request for a 12-year shield from competition for certain drugs in favor of up to eight years only. Their angst makes Doctors Without Borders’ denunciation of “the worst trade agreement for access to medicines” seem hyperbolic, especially as that group acknowledges the deal “has improved over the [drugmakers’] initial demands.”

As for currency manipulation, early leaks raised concerns over whether the deal would address it. In the end, anti-manipulation principles were included. True, Obama confesses that that language is unenforceable. But so too were earlier deals’ labor standards, which nonetheless were the necessary predicate for the TPP’s enforceable worker protections. Now’s the time, the president argues, to rhetorically attack currency depredations to prepare for a future ban with teeth.

President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with agriculture and business leaders at the Agriculture Department in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP)
President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with agriculture and business leaders at the Agriculture Department in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP)

There’s a non sequitur in Clinton’s thinking. Killing the TPP won't stop currency manipulators like Japan and Malaysia, who are party to the deal, or China, who isn't. It will merely allow China to continue making its own Pacific trade deals, without meaningful currency, labor or environmental standards. Incidentally, the TPP’s labor standards are important. Vietnam, for example, must permit unions and forswear child and forced labor — all good for their workers and ours, who will lose one source of artificially cheapened competition.

Hysterical claims against the TPP inflame the left’s existing paranoia over alleged job loss. “We’ve learned a lot about trade agreements,” Clinton said. She noted the South Korean trade deal negotiated by the Bush Administration didn’t live up to its PR (neither did NAFTA, which was signed by her husband). Yet Paul Krugman, the proudly progressive economist who won a Nobel Prize for his trade research and a self-described “lukewarm opponent” of the TPP, dismisses the job-killing rant.

Free trade generally hasn’t eviscerated American employment as badly as protectionists claim, Krugman says. Indeed, with respect to Clinton, let’s talk about what we’ve learned about trade deals. The Third Way, a think tank, examined the U.S.’s 17 trade deals in the last 15 years. All but four improved our trade balance (the bad four included the South Korean deal). The TPP would eliminate more than 18,000 foreign taxes on American exports.

Obama may be presenting a deal that mixes genuine benefits with just modest compromises of progressive goals.

So what’s the one serious concern? As do other treaties, the TPP lets corporations sue governments over regulations that cut profits. Some warn that polluters might thereby get around environmental rules. Companies usually win these suits. Meanwhile, health activists allege the TPP would force unsafe seafood from polluted pools in Vietnam and Malaysia onto the U.S. market.

With thousands of existing treaties containing the same dispute settlement process; with the U.S. having been sued only 17 times, winning every suit; and with the TPP imposing new conduct rules on the corporate lawyers deciding disputes, the deal may be only a marginal environmental setback. Certainly, we’d still be on the hook for climate change even with the deal’s defeat. Moreover, the agreement specifically bans one big player, tobacco companies, from the dispute settlement process, meaning they couldn’t assail participating nations’ anti-smoking curbs. It’s hard to imagine our liberal Democratic president sanctioning what the environmentalists and public safety folks allege. But Obama must address their concerns.

Assuming he does, a test lies ahead for his liberal critics. No treaty or law is ever perfect. But the left rightly condemns Tea Party congressmen for rigid rejection of compromise, which is the very grease of good government. Obama may be presenting a deal that mixes genuine benefits with just modest compromises of progressive goals. If so, the question before liberals will be, am I smarter than an unyielding, right-wing nut?

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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