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Hillary Clinton’s trade position deserves disdain

Hillary Clinton is getting a lot of flack for remaining nearly silent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, and she deserves all of it. Well, almost all of it.

“It is generally the case that if you don’t have the courage to run on a particular platform, you will not have any more courage to govern on it once you are in office,” Robert Kagan writes. “Presidents usually only do what they say they are going to do.” In other words, if Clinton doesn’t stand up to the dead-end anti-trade ideology in her party now, she never will.

But there’s significant evidence that’s not true. Clinton’s cowardice on trade should be very familiar. It’s the same sort of populist pandering that she and Barack Obama engaged in during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. No one should have believed then that she or Obama meant it. No one should expect now that she will be any more of an anti-trade firebrand than President Obama turned out to be.

Clinton and Obama competed frantically in 2008 over who would be seen as the angriest about the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In stump speeches, Obama promised to “renegotiate NAFTA” and threatened to rip the United States out of the regional cooperation deal if our next-door allies didn’t give in. Clinton took about the same position and attacked Obama for every hint that he didn’t mean it.

And, of course, he didn’t. Sophisticated observers at the time assumed that Obama and Clinton weren’t being honest about their intentions, that both were level-headed enough to realize that the anti-trade sentiment in some quarters of the Democratic Party is neither warranted nor wise.

These assumptions were all but confirmed when word came that Austan Goolsbee, at the time a top Obama economic adviser, assured the Canadian government that Obama’s anti-trade positioning was more about politics than an indication of what he would do in the White House. The Obama campaign aggressively denied the claims, but a leaked Canadian government memo subsequently indicated something like that nevertheless happened.

Unsurprisingly, Obama didn’t renegotiate NAFTA when he got into office. Clinton wouldn’t have, either. Nor will she if she takes office in 2017. And, despite her 2008 rhetoric on trade, she championed the TPP as secretary of state, which indicates that she would sign that trade deal if it were still lingering on the national agenda by the time she entered the Oval Office.

But she probably won’t admit this, because even though Pew Research Center polling suggests that the vast majority of Democrats think trade is a good thing and favor the TPP in particular, the loud minority of Democratic activists and voters behind the party’s zombie anti-trade dogma makes smart, globally-minded presidential primary candidates feel as though they must pretend to be something else. It also, apparently, affects Democratic senators, most of whom voted against fast-tracking TPP last week.

Republicans shouldn’t be too self-satisfied about any of this. The Pew polling shows that skepticism of TPP is significantly higher among Republicans than it is among Democrats. Simple hatred of Obama, who has championed TPP, might explain this result. But presidential candidates such as Mike Huckabee will attempt to appeal to the populist right with a “nationalist” anti-trade agenda in next year’s GOP primaries. Huckabee doesn’t have much chance of winning the Republican nomination. But if he nevertheless shows that anti-trade rhetoric can help candidates in GOP primaries, others might feel pressure to take an anti-trade stance, too. Whether or not they believe in it.

The biggest problem with Clinton’s cowardice is not that it predicts her actions in office, but that it enables rather than combats the narrow-minded populism among some in her party, which makes it harder to advance a smart trade agenda if and when she would try. Despite Pew’s polling numbers, Obama has had to fight a lonely battle against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., unions and anti-trade activists, with mere fact and logic his most notable allies. More responsible Democrats should be trying to sideline these voices instead of running in fear of them.

© 2015, The Washington Post