Hillary is playing progressives for fools: Why you shouldn't believe her populist talk on trade

Hillary Clinton is allegedly still making up her mind about TPP. Does anyone really believe this?

Published April 21, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Last week, congressional Democrats and Republicans reached a deal to give the Obama administration Trade Promotion Authority, which would give the administration more leeway to negotiate trade treaties, like the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, with less congressional interference. It's being billed as the first big fight within the Democratic presidential primary, pitting labor groups, environmentalists and other progressive activists against the more New Democrat, "corporate-friendly" wing of the party.

Since the great battles within the Democratic presidential primary will most likely be played out within the Hillary Clinton campaign, not among various competitive candidates, all eyes turned to the former secretary of state for her position on TPP. Her campaign's spokesperson, Nick Merrill, issued a statement last Friday saying Clinton had not made up her mind yet:

A statement from her spokesperson, Nick Merrill, Friday afternoon struck a delicate balance. “Hillary Clinton believes that any new trade measure has to pass two tests: First, it should put us in a position to protect American workers, raise wages and create more good jobs at home. Second, it must also strengthen our national security. We should be willing to walk away from any outcome that falls short of these tests,” Merrill said.

“The goal is greater prosperity and security for American families, not trade for trade’s sake. She will be watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation, improve labor rights, protect the environment and health, promote transparency, and open new opportunities for our small businesses to export overseas. As she warned in her book, “Hard Choices,” we shouldn’t be giving special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers,” Clinton’s spokesperson continued.

Uh-huh. So, here's a question: If Clinton does eventually come out against TPP, why would anyone in their right mind believe that? If candidate Clinton says that as president, she would either withdraw from or renegotiate TPP, how naive would you possibly have to be to believe that she would follow through with that?

Within hours of Merrill's statement, IBT reporter David Sirota dug up a Clinton statement from 2012 swooning over TPP. You know all that stuff about labor and environmental protections that Clinton says she's going to keep a close eye on? In 2012, she referred to TPP as the "gold standard" there.

In November 2012, the then-secretary of state declared that “we need to keep upping our game both bilaterally and with partners across the region through agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP. ... This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field. And when negotiated, this agreement will cover 40 percent of the world's total trade and build in strong protections for workers and the environment.”

You could argue that Clinton was only saying that in her official capacity as secretary of state, serving at the pleasure of the Obama administration. That in her heart of hearts, she was always mighty suspicious of this gargantuan trade deal. Perhaps her campaign will try to run with that excuse.

So what does Clinton believe deep down? The best way to decide how Hillary Clinton really feels about trade deals is to delve into her history. Hillary was a consistent supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement from the time her husband pushed it through upon entering office through the early 2000s. Only when she launched her first presidential bid, in 2007, did she begin to argue that NAFTA "has not lived up to its promises."

Both Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama made suckers out of progressive primary voters when it came to trade issues in the 2008 election. Each promised to renegotiate NAFTA if they became president. This was a big deal ahead of the Ohio primary, where trade agreements have served the working-class economy poorly.

Clinton won the primary safely thanks in part to "NAFTAgate." In the days ahead of the vote, you see, a Canadian government memo leaked, revealing a meeting Obama campaign economist Austan Goolsbee conducted with a Canadian government official. Goolsbee reassured the Canadians that Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric was just for the sake of "political positioning," and that they had no reason to worry otherwise. The Obama campaign tried to deny the story, but that didn't work so well.

The kicker here is that a couple days after Clinton won the primary, a report came out that Clinton's team had told the Canadians more or less the same thing: that Clinton's rhetoric about wanting to renegotiate NAFTA should be taken "with a grain of salt."

As we know, Obama became president of the United States and appointed Clinton his secretary of state. The two of them combined spent approximately zero seconds working to renegotiate NAFTA, but they did push forward on new, bigger, more opaque trade agreements.

If Hillary Clinton comes out against TPP, or promises to renegotiate TPP to make it perfect and great for workers (should it reach the finish line), there's little reason to digest it as anything other than pandering. The only interesting aspect of her public statements on TPP -- and trade deals in general -- is political: what hedged language she'll settle on to secure access to labor unions' campaign cash ATMs, and how low labor sets its bar because it's a captive interest of the Democratic Party and has nowhere else to go.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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