The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Obama's Trade Deal Is Making Things Awkward for Democrats in Tonight's Debate

International trade negotiations are something Americans don't usually give two shits about. But the TPP might make Tuesday's Vegas showdown a little more interesting.
October 13, 2015, 8:30pm

If you're trying to be the 2016 Democratic nominee for president, your position on the still-somewhat-mysterious Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal favored by President Obama, is under quite a bit of scrutiny right now. Going into Tuesday night's Democratic debate, the deal—and the broader issues that it represents—have become an unlikely flashpoint for the five candidates (yes, there are five). It's sure to make for some uncomfortable, on-the-fly opinion-parsing, and will likely put Hillary Clinton in the weird position of having her fellow candidates criticize her view, even when they agree with her.

See, Clinton used to support the deal, and was even tasked with selling it to the international community when she served as Obama's secretary of state. Since launching her current presidential campaign, though, she has repeatedly weaseled out of taking a clear stance on the deal, and as recently as last Tuesday, she was being singled out for her wishy-washiness. But now that the TPP is fully negotiated and ready for Congress to give the official thumbs-up or thumbs-down, she's suddenly decided she's against it.

Clinton announced this last week, although the exact words she used were a pretty timid denunciation, bordering on a non-answer: "As of today I am not in favor of what I have learned about it," she told PBS News Hour. Perhaps due to the mildness of these comments, her staff later deemed it necessary to issue a less ambiguous statement from the candidate, saying that the "bar [for the deal] was very high, and based on what I have seen, I don't believe this agreement has met it."

Her opposition places her on the same side as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a fierce TPP critic and Clinton's official rival for the Democratic nomination. After Clinton finally went on the record opposing the deal, Sanders issued a supportive statement, saying, "I hope that, with her help, with the efforts of virtually every union in the country and with the opposition of many environmental groups, we can defeat this agreement which was largely written by Wall Street and corporate America." He hedged this a little later though, telling reporters that "it would've been more helpful to have her on board a few months ago."

The sudden about-face has left people wondering just how genuine her new position really is, especially since, as Clinton pointed out herself, she has yet to read the deal. Critics like Ian Fletcher think the Democratic frontrunner changed her position on the TPP just because she noticed Sanders was taking away her far-leftist supporters. In contrast to Sanders, though, she's got some work to do in convincing Americans that she really wants to stop the TPP. If she's lying, that means she's going to need to lie harder; otherwise, she needs to turn on the pathos.

It doesn't help that Clinton's comments last week were accompanied by a lot of wonkish foreplay about her supposed "worries" regarding the deal. She explained on PBS that she was "worried about currency manipulation not being part of the agreement." She also said she was "worried that the pharmaceutical companies may have gotten more benefits, and consumers, fewer."

These reasons are a far cry from the populist denouncements espoused by Sanders and his supporters. Her pharmaceutical line is a little silly. As we've previously mentioned, the pharmaceutical provisions in the finalized TPP appear to be less friendly to the pharmaceutical industry than critics had initially feared. Demanding action on currency manipulation is a little farfetched as well since the leaked TPP documents never indicated the deal would include a section on currency manipulation.

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Paul Ryan, an outspoken right-wing Republican congressman and adamant non-candidate in any leadership race this year, was one of those who threw shade Hillary's way on the TPP issue. "I'm a little surprised that someone would—someone who seeking the presidency would—cavalierly dismiss a trade agreement that they haven't even had a chance to read it yet," he told MSNBC last week. For the record, this places Ryan on Team Obama, and Clinton in opposition to her former boss—a great example of the strange bedfellows created by the deal sometimes known as "Obamatrade."

Since Hillary's statement, only one Democratic candidate, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, seems to remain on the fence. In April, Webb decried the "fast track" bill that empowered Obama to negotiate the TPP more easily, prompting the amateur editors at Ballotpedia to lump him into the "against it" camp—but the truth is, he hasn't clearly come out for or against the deal. And for what it's worth, Webb has a history of supporting trade agreements.

The only Democratic candidate who staunchly disagrees with Clinton's official position is a guy named Lincoln Chafee, a former governor and senator from Rhode Island. Chafee has voiced his support for the TPP, saying "I guess I'm the only Democratic candidate for president standing strong with President Obama on this issue." Then again, until eight years ago, Lincoln Chafee was a Republican.

Of course, there's also Vice President Joe Biden, who will not be on stage for the Democratic Debate in Las Vegas. If Biden does decide to run, he'll be among the party's 2016 frontrunners, and the only reasonably likely future president (apologies Mr. Chafee) still "standing strong" with the existing president. That position could hurt Joe, making him look overly enamored with the work done by the Obama administration, even when it hasn't satisfied the president's own party. Biden is a fierce supporter of labor unions, for instance, and unions hate the TPP, which could raise some challenges for the otherwise popular veep's hypothetical 2016 campaign.

But once upon a time, Clinton too spoke fondly of the deal. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations as Secretary of State back in January of 2010, Clinton said that the US was "engaging in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations as a mechanism for improving linkages among many of the major Asia-Pacific economies." In 2012, she was even more effusive, calling it "the gold standard in trade agreements."

However implausible Clinton's reasons for flip-flopping may be, she has now made her decision. Assuming she knows better than to flip-flop-flip—a move that tends to make politicians seem borderline unhinged—she's stuck with this decision for good. That's something White House Press Secretary Josh Ernest seemed to grokk when he said on Thursday that Obama "understands" the need to rebuke his trade deal, because "presidential politics are tough."

While the politics may be tough, major distinctions in policy are hard to come by in the lead-up to a debate. The Republican debates so far have tended to be mostly contests to see which candidate can get the most worked up over issues like abortion. But in the rare moments when GOP candidates parted ways, for instance when criminal justice reform came up, pulses quickened, and the staid proceedings suddenly turned into a vibrant conversation about solutions to real problems. The TPP may be similarly poised to provoke a substantive conversation in Vegas Tuesday night.

Clinton will be the literal centerpiece of the debate, and there in the middle of the stage, she'll be everyone's target when it comes time to answer questions about the TPP. With her agenda focused on fixing her "authenticity problem," she'll need the extra time in the spotlight to convince doubtful voters that she's, like, super not on board with this trade deal you guys. In the meantime, the odds of someone at the debate mentioning Clinton's "gold standard" remark are approximately 5 billion percent.

It's not abundantly clear how much voters care about this trade deal. According to a Gallup poll from back in May, the economy matters more than any other issue in the 2016 election, although "foreign affairs" ranks closer to the bottom of the list. But this partnership, which is ten years in the making, really has a chance of beating the odds and going into effect. And if it livens up an otherwise snoozy presidential debate, it could end up turning into an issue that Democratic voters actually give a shit about.

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