Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Hillary’s shift on free trade

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate that she’s against the Trans-Pacific trade deal that would create the world’s biggest trading bloc, and which she supported as secretary of state. Don’t believe it!

Just like what happened with President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, it has become a political ritual for Democrats to oppose free trade deals during presidential campaigns in order to win the support of labor unions, only to enthusiastically embrace these trade deals once they become presidents.

Free trade is an issue that in recent decades has been championed by Republicans, and approached hesitantly by Democrats.

When Obama was running for president in 2008, he told me in an interview that he was “not comfortable” voting for a then-pending free trade deal with Colombia. He had earlier said he would seek to renegotiate the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, saying that it was “a bad deal” because it allegedly didn’t have enough protections for U.S. workers and for the environment.

But as president, Obama passed free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea in 2011, before embarking on the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which turned out to be the most ambitious trade deal ever.

Once the TPP is ratified by the legislative bodies of participating countries, the new trade agreement — it includes the United States, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, Peru and Chile, among others — will be the biggest trade bloc in the world. It will represent 40 percent of the world’s economy, and a market of 800 million people.

Bill Clinton offered only conditional support for the NAFTA free trade deal during the 1992 presidential debates. He said he would support the George H.W. Bush-sponsored agreement if it provided safeguards for the environment, and for U.S. and Mexican workers.

But once elected, Clinton went out of his way to get a reluctant Congress to pass the NAFTA deal.

Hillary Clinton would most likely fall into the somewhat schizophrenic tradition of her Democratic predecessors on free trade. Hearing her criticize Obama’s Trans-Pacific trade deal at the first Democratic debate Tuesday, it was hard not to draw parallels with Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s stands on free trade when they were candidates.

“It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards,” Hillary Clinton said. “I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, ‘This will help raise your wages.’ And I concluded I could not.”

When she was secretary of state and the Obama administration was negotiating the trade deal, Clinton had supported the proposed agreement.

And Vice President Joe Biden, if he were to jump into the race for the Democratic nomination, would most likely follow his party’s tradition on free trade. As senator, he voted against the free trade deal with Central America in 2005, and against the free trade deals with Chile and Singapore in 2003. But as Obama’s vice president, Biden has strongly supported the Trans-Pacific trade deal.

My opinion: If Clinton were elected president, she would follow the steps of her Democratic predecessors and support free trade deals once in office because these agreements usually increase exports of all participating countries. And a rising tide lifts all boats.

In addition, failing to sign trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific deal would allow China to impose its own trade system in the world by continuing to sign free trade agreements without labor, environmental or anti-corruption standards. That’s not good for the United States, nor for the rest of the world, except China.

So those of us who support free trade shouldn’t lose much sleep over Hillary’s anti-TPP comments. She would end up supporting free trade. Just as Obama did. Just as her husband did.

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