On the Attack

Turncoat Democrats, It’s Time to Support Obama on Trade

Progressives’ campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a PR rout. But their fight against Obama’s deal undermines the very causes they support.

Somebody with significant resources really hates the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Immediately after the midterm elections, Democratic voters got emails saying the proposed 12-nation trade agreement would steal our sovereignty, damage the economy, make products unsafe, wreck the environment, jack up the costs of medicine, and subvert economic justice. From nothing in October 2014, social media is now filled with the same messages posted by activists across the globe, from California to New Zealand. Twenty-seven of the top 30 hits for a Google search for “TPP” are slick opposition web pages with the same messages. The only pro-TPP page the comes up is banal boilerplate from the U.S. government trade negotiation authority.

In the world of public relations, this is a rout. Who has the resources to mount such a coordinated campaign? Why are they spending so much to attack one of President Obama’s top diplomatic priorities? And why is no one mounting a counter-campaign to defend the TPP?

The answer emerges from the top TPP hit on Google, an op-ed posted Tuesday by a lobbyist for U.S. domestic manufacturers. The lobbyist, who has read recent TPP drafts as part of his Democratic lobbying work, is outraged that Obama negotiators “dismiss individuals like me who believe that, first and foremost, a trade agreement should promote the interests of domestic producers and their employees.”

This candid statement puts the anti-TPP campaign squarely in historical context. Powerful domestic interests have opposed free trade from before the U.S. Constitution was ratified and continued to oppose trade deals like Bill Clinton’s NAFTA negotiations in the 1990s. The beneficiaries of free trade—from the jobless who might get jobs, to the low-income consumers who benefit from cheaper products, to the high-poverty regions of the developing world that would benefit from exporting to U.S. consumers—just don’t have the same public relations resources. But although the social media campaign is an anti-TPP rout, its substantive arguments are profoundly at odds with progressive traditions.

Start with the widespread but absurd claim that the TPP is being negotiated “in secret.” The TPP will be public before the U.S. Congress votes to approve it, so our citizens will have legislative review of this agreement. The only constraint is that Congress will have to vote “take it or leave it” rather than offering amendments. This procedural rule reduces domestic lobbying, yes, but it has been used to advance Democratic causes in the past, such as shrinking wasteful military expenses by closing unneeded domestic military bases.

Democrats who argue that the deal should be public now, during negotiations, should consider the precedent that would set. If multilateral negotiations have to take place in front of C-SPAN cameras, international progress would cease on a host of causes Democrats support, from environmental coordination to peace treaties. Outside interests can always publicize certain aspects of the deal and deliver focused public opposition to those specific provisions. Those who claim to seek more transparency are really trying to sabotage the substantive deal itself. That is why Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) pushed so hard for extensive congressional review of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, no one on the political left seems to notice the irony that Cotton and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka are both arguing that Obama should be given less negotiating authority.

What about the claim that the deal violates international sovereignty by creating a separate judicial review procedure? Well, it appears that progressives have forgotten their historic support for the United Nations, or the international criminal court at The Hague, or a whole host of other cross-border agreements. If an international agreement is going to mean anything, it has to come with a dispute resolution mechanism that necessarily gets some authority delegated to an international body. No nation loses any of its ultimate sovereignty, as that delegation can always be revoked; any nation can withdraw from international agreements at any time.

And what about the substance itself? Putting aside the fringe claims, the basic argument is that the TPP opens our markets to countries that damage their environments, as well as underpaying and mistreating their workers. TPP critics claim the deal encourages those foreign nations to keep doing those bad things and hurts U.S. workers by forcing them to compete “unfairly” with nations that do not abide by our environmental and safety rules.

A review of the history, evidence, and social justice of free trade overwhelmingly rebuts those claims.

First of all, opening our markets to developing countries helps the world’s poorest people. China is only one of many examples of countries that have reduced their own poverty by specializing in producing goods for export. Global inequality has gone down dramatically over the past several decades as trade agreements have brought prosperity to more poor regions.

Second, as formerly poor nations become more prosperous through trade, their citizens choose to invest in goods that make the world a better place. Country after country, including the United States, enacted environmental improvements and labor safeguards as they became more prosperous. The best thing America can do for the world is use our markets to help more poor nations follow this path of progress.

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Third, the deal directly and immediately benefits the United States. If another country is doing low-wage work, that frees up the United States to do more high-wage work. A great example is sugar. Sugar tariffs may protect U.S. sugar manufacturers, but they hurt U.S. confectioners and candy-makers. If we drop sugar tariffs, we encourage growth in the latter industries—and those industries can support better wages and jobs for America.

Finally, the Democratic Party should be the party of optimism and the future. The country’s demographics favor our agenda and our brand. Most of the member nations of the TPP already have tariff agreements with the United States. The major focus of the TPP negotiations is to bring China, Japan, the United States, and other nations into alignment on services and intellectual property. These are the industries of the future and the industries in which U.S. innovation gives us an advantage. We should have the confidence to embrace a deal that expands the global markets for such industries, especially when the deal is being negotiated by a president of our own party.