For years, Hillary Clinton has championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as one of her signal achievements in her time as secretary of state.
She called it the “gold standard in trade agreements” in 2012. She listed it in her book as one of her key accomplishments. But now, four weeks before the final TPP text is released, she has announced a change of heart. “As of today,” she told Judy Woodruff, “I am not in favor of what I have learned about it.”
Clinton’s flip-flop would be laughable if it weren’t exactly what the American people expect of her—and a trap for Republicans blind to her game.
From the perspective that assumes Clinton operates according to principles and ideology, the shift is potentially damaging. Vox, for example, headlines its coverage: “Hillary Clinton’s flip-flop on the TPP makes no sense.”
And it doesn’t, for someone who is a consistent, principled, ideologically driven politician.
But this move makes total sense if you understand that Clinton is none of these things. She is changing her mind on this, as she has on so many other things, based on nothing more than political pressure from her left and analysis of political trend lines. The media loves to talk about how GOP primaries pull Republicans so far to the right they can’t win a general election, but that’s what’s happening in real time to Clinton, who is locked in a bidding war with a Vermont socialist over the progressive base.
Clinton has always been a perfect barometer of where her party is. She is a follower, not a leader. She has correctly perceived that the Democratic base is now dominated by a coalition of economic know-nothings and culture-war leftists who are less interested in “progressive” policy than in freezing the status quo in place.
As an expression of throwback reflexes on trade and growth, it amounts to Trumpism in a pantsuit. And it’s something more: It’s evidence that a second Clinton presidency can only be won on the ashes of the legacy and vision of the first—a triangulating presidency during which entitlements were reformed significantly and free trade expanded.
Yet I wonder if all the campaign operatives right and left now saying, “Oh, Hillary’s flip-flopping, she’s contradicting what’s in her book—this could damage her,” have been paying attention to anything the voters have learned about Hillary Clinton in the intervening years. Of course it won’t damage her to flip-flop. She has been for all the things before she was against them.
The trap for Republicans is assuming the TPP news presents some new kind of weapon against Clinton, instead of one already dulled past the point of uselessness. Many Americans think Clinton is impossible to trust. They view her as a stone-faced liar—about everything, for years—and yet she’s still neck and neck with the Republicans, which tells you a little something about the party’s brand.
Do Republican operatives think it is news to the American people after the decades of knowledge we have about Clinton that she is shifty? No one cares. That she will obfuscate to the point of congressional inquiry? No one is surprised. That she will flip-flop according to poll numbers? No one thinks otherwise! What matters is whether people think she’ll fight for them, and in this economically backward way, that’s what she’s promising.
Flip-flops like these are not comparable for other politicians. It’s not as if Ted Cruz is saying he’s for raising some income tax rates, or Bernie Sanders is saying he’s for raising the Social Security retirement age. Such statements would almost certainly follow a thorough, thoughtful vetting process about the substantive pros and cons of each policy. “After long consideration and reconsideration,” and so on and so forth.
These rules do not apply to Clinton, which is why it’s pointless to make a fuss about her stated “position” on TPP. She is likely lying about what she thinks, and even if she’s not, her words have no necessary relationship with her true policy goals. The odds of Clinton pushing this agreement forward yesterday were 50/50, and today they are 50/50. It is a position taken for the sake of advantage at this juncture of a long campaign—and there is no reason she will feel bound by it once in the White House.
Clinton’s campaign positions are just about doing whatever will do her the most political good in the moment, like Lucille Bluth deciding between her least favorite children. Her positions are just words designed to get herself into the desk where she can then decide what is best for all the little people. Clinton’s words are the cake she lets the voters eat. And eat it they will.