Hillary Clinton's populist charade: Think twice before you take her at her word on TPP

Clinton and Obama both campaign against free trade -- then turn right around and pursue the neoliberal agenda

Published October 9, 2015 6:45PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jim Young)
(Reuters/Jim Young)

On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton announced a major departure from her previous stance on the massive Obama trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As others have noted, this shift to the left is no doubt a sign that Clinton is “feeling the Bern,” and that the Bernie Sanders campaign, which recently broke a fundraising record by hitting one million individual donations so soon, is making the former Secretary of State sweat. Clinton explained her thinking for this move in an interview with PBS:

I have said from the very beginning that we had to have a trade agreement that would create good American jobs, raise wages and advance our national security, and I still believe that is the high bar that we have to meet. I don’t believe [the TPP is] going to meet the high bar I have set.

This may all be true, but there is little doubt that the strong opposition from labor unions, environmentalists and other progressives had something to do with this flip-flop. The sincerity behind the shift is concerning, especially if we take a look at Clinton’s previous statements on the TPP, like when she said that it "sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open, free, transparent, fair trade,” back in November 2012. It is completely valid to question whether Clinton is now opposing the TPP for the sole sake of polls, and if, once elected, she would flip-flop right back to her previous conviction.

Which brings us to President Obama, the strongest advocate of the TPP and former critic of free trade agreements like NAFTA, back when he was a Senator running for president. Indeed, in 2008, Obama sounded a lot like Bernie Sanders:

I voted against CAFTA, never supported NAFTA, and will not support NAFTA-style trade agreements in the future. While NAFTA gave broad rights to investors, it paid only lip service to the rights of labor and the importance of environmental protection.

A trade deal that gives broad rights to investors and pays only lip service to labor and environmental concerns. Sound familiar? It seems these are the very problems that so many on the left have with the TPP. Whether it's the environmentconsumer protection, or its threat to American workers and democracy, supporters have done little to alleviate so many of these legitimate concerns. Furthermore, the TPP has been negotiated in top secret, with great corporate influence, and most of what we know about it is from Wikileaks!

Just look at the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), a provision common in most trade deals, including the TPP, that provides foreign investors with the ability to sue a country in international court if new domestic laws or regulations hurt its potential profits. A notable victim of this provision has been Canada, which is currently facing multiple ISDS lawsuits under the NAFTA deal, which add up to billions of dollars. The most infamous case involves an American based extractive company and hydro-fracking. The company, Lone Pine, is suing the government after Quebec put in place a moratorium on fracking, an extractive technique that is notoriously pollutant and has been shown to contaminate ground water.

The ISDS threatens not only the sovereignty of a country, but also its democracy and right to regulate the economy without facing billions of dollars in lawsuits from foreign corporations. According to the “Investment Chapter” of the TPP, which was leaked by Wikileaks earlier this year, the deal includes an ISDS provision. Michael Brune, the executive director of the environmentalist group, Sierra Club, warned in a New York Times op-ed that similar provisions in other agreements “have enabled corporations like ExxonMobil and Chevron to bring more than 600 investor-state cases against more than 100 governments.”

You have to wonder: where did the 2008 Obama, who was so critical of trade agreements like NAFTA go? Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich provided a good guess back in June. On Facebook, he introduced the United States Trade Representative, Michael Froman, who went to college with Obama and is in charge of the TPP negotiations. Reich wrote:

In the Clinton Administration, Froman was chief of staff to Bob Rubin when Rubin was Secretary of the Treasury. Rubin, you may recall, had convinced Clinton to pass NAFTA, kill the Glass-Steagall Act, and not regulate financial derivatives. Immediately after the Clinton Administration, Froman accompanied Rubin to Citigroup, where Rubin ran the bank’s executive committee while Froman became President and Chief Executive Officer of Citi Insurance and head of Emerging Markets Strategy. Froman remained at Citigroup until Obama tapped him to be U.S. Trade Representative. (Froman did well at the bank, receiving more than $7.4 million from January 2008 to 2009 alone.) Not incidentally, Froman was the person who first introduced Obama to Rubin.

And so it seems the president may be getting bad advice, just like Bill Clinton did back in the ‘90s. Indeed, on President Obama’s 28 trade advisory committees, made up of 566 members, 85 percent of the members come from private industry and trade associations, while only 15 percent come from academia, labor unions, NGOs, and law organizations. Talk about bias.

Obama’s relentless support of the TPP has been one of the strangest and most unfortunate flip-flops of his presidency. And it makes you wonder, would Clinton really be opposing the TPP if she were in Obama's shoes right now? I don't think so. Currently, she has a Bernie Sanders problem, and coming out in opposition is a shrewd strategic move. But if and when she makes it to the executive office, there is little doubt that she will retreat back to the comfortable center, where she has long resided.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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2016 Elections Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Free Trade Hillary Clinton Tpp Trans-pacific Partnership