Hillary Clinton went to New York’s Roosevelt Island earlier this month to relaunch her campaign for president. Her first kickoff fell flat, perhaps because she herself didn’t attend, opting instead to send a video greeting card in which people she still insists on calling ‘everyday Americans’ shared their life plans. (To go to school! Plant a garden! Get married!) She came on at the end to say she had plans of her own that include being president, and that she does it all for us.
She delivered a 45-minute speech that told us little more than that three-minute video. She still won’t say where she’d peg the minimum wage or if she’d ever rein in the surveillance state or get us out of Iraq. Most amazing is how she finesses the Trans Pacific Partnership that President Obama so covets. It’s the biggest deal in the history of commerce; its investor tribunals would substitute corporate for democratic will here and around the world -- and Clinton hasn’t said boo about it. Some ask how she gets away with it. I’m not so sure she does.
Politicians have always ducked tough issues, but today’s Democrats are the worst. When the TPP came before the House, enough Democrats played it cute to leave the outcome in doubt till the very end. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi didn’t tip her hand until just before the vote. Many who voted no never said exactly why. Some want to curb currency manipulation. Some oppose the fast track process, others the secret tribunals or the intellectual property rules that actually restrain competition. If the caucus as a whole has a bottom line, no one knows what it is.
The TPP is a mystery because our leaders wish it so. We don’t know what’s in it because our president won’t let us read it, and not out of respect for precedent or protocol. George W. Bush showed us drafts of his trade agreements. We’re negotiating one right now with Europe, and Europeans get to read those drafts. If a comma gets cut from the TPP, hundreds of corporate lobbyists know in an instant. The only people who don’t know are the American people -- and that's only because our president thinks our knowing would ruin everything.
The process by which Congress considers the TPP is confusing in itself. The pact is still being negotiated by the 12 nations who’d be parties to it. The fight now is over legislation meant to grease the skids for it when it finally arrives. At issue are trade promotion authority or TPA -- the ‘fast track’ by which Congress vows not to amend or filibuster a trade agreement it hasn’t even read-- and trade adjustment assistance or TAA, which gives benefits (money, health insurance, job training) to workers who can prove to the federal government that they lost their jobs due to trade. Signed into law by John Kennedy, expanded by Bill Clinton and extended by George W. Bush, the half-century old program is set to expire in September. The bills now before Congress would keep it alive another six years.
Back in May the Senate approved a bill that included both TAA and TPA. On June 12, the House voted on both, but in separate bills under a rule requiring passage of each in order to send either to the Senate. The rule was alternatively described as an attempt to mirror the Senate bill, or a strategy to gain House passage, there being different majorities there for each provision. (Republicans are for trade promotion. Democrats are for trade assistance.) As a strategy for passage it was a dud. When fast track passed by eight votes (219 to 211), Democrats reversed field and bailed on the TAA just to derail the whole process.
The press called the June 12 votes a huge win for labor and a “humiliating defeat” (the Washington Post) for Obama. Reading such stories one might think fast track or even the TPP itself had suffered a crushing blow. Some on the left even called it historic. Paul Krugman wrote, “House Democrats shocked almost everyone by rejecting key provisions needed to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” To Krugman it seemed a watershed: "Ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Democrats have been on the ideological defensive. Even when they won elections they seemed afraid to endorse clearly progressive positions… But that era appears to be over."
I wouldn’t pop any corks quite yet. For the first time ever Congress hit the pause button on globalization, but that’s all it did. House Dems didn’t suddenly lurch left; they just did what they always do. In 1993 they voted no on NAFTA. In 2002 they voted against the Iraq War. In 2010 they passed an Obamacare bill with a public option. But they can’t ignore their president or their donors forever. In 2008 they resisted Bush’s bailout but finally gave in to Obama and Wall Street. Republicans held firm, thus setting in motion the Tea Party and the sad, sorry debacle of 2010.
On Thursday the Republicans did what any fool could have predicted: they passed a new rule and sent the TPA to the Senate sans worker assistance. We don’t know what will happen next, but we do know fast track has already passed both houses of Congress once. In the end, Obama, Boehner, McConnell and their global capital partners will likely get their way, but June 12 may yet prove historic. In 2008 House Republicans lost the bailout battle but planted the seeds of a grass-roots movement that would win wars. Progressives should examine the precedent.
Krugman’s right: there’s a rumbling out there, but most Democrats are a long way from hearing it, let alone joining in. If House Dems stand firm, they too may plant the seeds of a grass-roots movement. Much of their party will resist. Every political party is really many parties. The Democrats’ presidential, Senate, governors’ and donors’ parties all line up with global capital. Even in the House, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is a staunch ‘free trader’ and Pelosi herself spent the week before the vote quietly imploring her caucus to swallow the poison pill.
No one knows where scores of Democrats really stand. Both parties are caught in a crossfire between their donors and their base. Republican voters are suspicious of the TPP and hate fast track, mostly because they hate Obama. Democratic voters hate fast track but accept the TPP, mostly because they love Obama. Republicans in Congress are civil because they can’t bash Democrats for doing what their base wishes they would do. Democrats in Congress are quiet because they don’t want their donors to think they mean what they say -- and don’t know when someone may offer them something to take one for the team by switching sides.
It’s hard to follow the bouncing ball when the topic’s so opaque, the bill’s locked up like a nuclear code and everyone’s lying or speaking in such empty phrases that they may as well be lying. The press isn’t helping. When all coverage is about motives, message or strategy, it’s easier for politicians to hide their views. This week I told two liberal friends that Pelosi is trying to find “a path to yes on fast track.” (Her words) Both said Pelosi and Clinton had broken with Obama, are moving left and now oppose the deal. In terms of strategy and message it was true -- all except the part about Clinton and Pelosi opposing the deal.
No one plays the game better than Hillary Clinton, the Harry Houdini of syntax. The question is whether it’s a winning game, and if so for whom. It isn’t a winning game for progressives. We only win when debate is specific, honest and brave. The TPP debate is like those we have every day over government. The more abstract the terms, the harder it is for us to win. If we find ourselves debating ‘government’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ we lose. If we talk Medicare or Social Security, we win. We even win on foreign aid but only when armed with the facts.
It’s the same with the TPP. Everyone wants more ‘global cooperation’ but no one wants to let Big Pharma stamp out generic drugs or let Big Tobacco tell us how they'll label their products. And no one wants some secretive global tribunal telling a state legislature how to govern. If there’s an easier case to make, I’ve never seen it. You may ask why every Democrat in Congress doesn’t make it, but we’ve gone over that. Whether they’re in thrall to their donors, their consultants, their leaders or their ambitions, whoever or whatever holds them back, they just can’t do it.
Clinton spoke on Roosevelt Island the day after the House TTP vote. She said the word ‘trade’ once, when breathlessly observing that she could see the new World Trade Center over her shoulder. In a year she has made just one statement on the issue. Months ago, when asked a question by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell she said, "Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security. And we have to do our part in making sure we have the…. skills to be competitive."
The morning after Announcement II, John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, appeared on "Meet the Press." When asked her position on the TPP he managed to sound indignant: "She actually has been very clear about where she stands on trade…. First, does it grow jobs, grow wages and protect American workers and second, does it protect our national security..."
Podesta said Clinton would “render her final judgment” after the deal was done. That was it. Her non-answer would be her final answer until such time as it no longer mattered what she thought. Podesta’s performance may have tripped an alarm even in the tone-deaf Clinton camp. Later that day in Iowa, she talked for the first time on the record about the TPP. In a story headlined Trade Deal Comments Put Hillary Clinton at Odds With Her Former Boss, the Times told how she "bluntly suggested that the president should ‘listen to and work with’ Democrats to improve the deal and ensure better protections for American workers. If that cannot be done Mrs. Clinton said, ‘there should be no deal.’"
This may have been the story my liberal friends read. It reads as if Clinton came out swinging, but read it again and it’s clear she said even less there than she said to Andrea Mitchell. If Obama can’t work with Democratic House leaders who both support the TPP, there shouldn’t be a deal. But why wouldn’t he? Her verbal feint was sublimely subtle. Without changing her position, without even taking one, she repositioned herself on an issue roiling her party and nation. As message politics goes, it was state of the art. Too bad for Clinton it isn’t working.
Clinton’s trade talk is of a piece with her entire 2016 campaign. It’s also of a piece with Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Clinton insiders make no secret of her desire to emulate him. Obama’s 2008 campaign had three hallmarks. One was its fundraising. Obama was the first Democratic presidential campaign to outraise a Republican on Wall Street and the first of either party to crack the code of Internet fundraising. The second was its massive, web-driven, volunteer effort, probably the biggest of any presidential campaign in history.
The third was its message, at once fiercely populist and reassuringly centrist -- and vague. Much of it came from chief strategist David Axelrod who opined that for too long Democrats had been mired down in issues. His campaigns were famous for selling personalities rather than platforms, for finding ways to reconcile our conflicts in the biographies of his candidates. It worked for Obama. “Yes we can,” audiences called out. “Do what?” few bothered to ask, or thought they had to.
After eight years of Obama, I’m not sure Clinton can run that race, or that anyone can. I don’t think she can enlist Wall Street oligarchs and recruit an army of dewy-eyed volunteers. Above all, I don’t think she can spout populist rhetoric without any policy specifics to back it up. Clinton insiders also ingratiate themselves to reporters by dishing about her need to seem more authentic. Someone should tell them it’s hard to seem real when you won’t tell people what you really think.
A bigger problem for Clinton may be that we know what she thinks. Her platform is like Obama’s trade deal; she won’t say what’s in it, but we can easily guess. It isn’t populism and it isn’t reform. The TPP? She never met a trade deal she didn’t like. The minimum wage? She and Obama let McDonald’s get the drop on them. The surveillance state? Her handling of her emails told us all we need to know of her views on transparency. More war in Iraq? For 12 years as a senator and secretary of state she was John McCain's best friend. If she gets to be commander in chief, get ready to rumble.
She’s weakest on the sleeper issue of 2016: public corruption and the general debasement of politics and government. Voter disgust is so deep even consultants who make their real livings off corporate clients tell their political clients to talk about it. In her speech Clinton vowed to “wage and win four fights for you.” The first three were jobs, families and national security. The fourth was “reforming our government and revitalizing our democracy.” She vowed to overturn Citizens United and fight GOP efforts to disenfranchise the young, the poor and people of color, but then drifted off onto technology and cutting waste. Unlike nearly every Republican announcing for president, she never mentioned ethics or corruption.
Democratic elites don’t want to hear it but Hillary Clinton’s in trouble. It isn’t in all the data yet though you can find it if you look. In a straw poll taken in early June at a Wisconsin Democratic convention she edged out Bernie Sanders by just 8 points, 49% to 41%. In a poll of N.H. primary voters this week she beat Sanders by 41% to 31%. An Ohio poll had her in a dead heat with the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. If Sanders can poll 40% in a Wisconsin straw poll in June he can do it an Iowa caucus in January. Imagine a Hillary Clinton who just lost Iowa and New Hampshire to Bernie Sanders. It’s still hard to picture but it gets easier every day.
You don’t win your next race running someone else’s last one. Trying to do so, Clinton repeats her big mistake of 2008: not sensing the times. There are smaller changes she can make right now: hire better speech writers, including at least one with a sense of humor; put her family foundation under independent management; tell her husband to stop giving speeches or else start talking for free. But her whole campaign model is wrong. ‘Clinton Democrats’ hate to admit there are issues you can’t finesse or that they must ever choose between the middle class and the donor class. Clinton better figure it out now. When the data’s all in it will be too late.
Clinton resists change. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is the only candidate in either party who seems to feel the tectonic plates of our politics shifting, perhaps because he’s expected the change for so long. His is still an improbable candidacy, but less improbable than it was a month or even a week ago. If he clears out the second tier, his battle with Hillary could become epic, forcing not just her but the Democratic Party to choose between the middle class and the donor class; between corporate and democratic rule; the battle over trade carried over into a presidential election.