Clinton’s Trade Turnabout Could Prove Political Mistake

Hillary Clinton may worry about her left-wing base, but Democratic voters actually support free trade.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership that her own party leader, Barack Obama, heralds as a victory for American leadership and American jobs reveals just how far to the left she is comfortable moving as a presidential candidate.

It could turn out to be a costly mistake.

Clinton played an integral part in advancing the free-trade pact with other Pacific nations as Obama’s top diplomat from 2009 to 2013. But as the frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Clinton now opposes a deal that would lower tariffs and reduce other trade barriers to the projected benefit of $220 billion in global economic output over ten years.

Up in arms

Republicans have predictably taken Clinton to task for what seems a turnabout. But she is worried about her own base. The left of the Democratic Party — including Bernie Sanders, a socialist presidential candidate, and Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator — is up in arms about the treaty which they see as a gain for giant corporations at the expense of American workers.

It’s hard to believe Clinton agrees with the protectionists. As Vox‘s Ezra Klein points out, she strongly backed the Trans Pacific Partnership in the past, calling it the “signature economic pillar” of America’s strategy in Asia and one that would demonstrate “the benefits of a rules-based order and greater cooperation with the United States.”

Surely, concerns about pharmaceuticals and the absence of provisions around Chinese currency manipulation she now cites to oppose the pact are not enough to scuttle the whole agreement when it is so critical to safeguarding American interests in the Far East?

Clinton’s weakness

Klein suggests Clinton criticizes the pact to keep her left-wing supporters happy, especially the trade unions which fear job losses as a result of freer trade.

If that is the case, he argues, “it’s not a great way for Clinton to show she’s willing to make some unpopular decisions if they lead to better policy.”

And this is a broader problem for Clinton. Her political weakness, fairly or not, is that the voters and the media — or maybe it’s the media and, thus, the voters — have decided that she’s unusually poll-tested and calculating, even for a politician. Politically convenient policy changes don’t help and they cut against what should be her greatest asset: that she’s an extraordinary policy mind who understands these issues better than her challengers and so can be trusted to make better decisions on them.

As the Atlantic Sentinel has reported, Clinton has moved to the left on other issues as well, such as climate legislation and gay marriage.

But that is unlikely to hurt her in the general election when centrist voters will determine the outcome.

Public opinion

America as a whole is becoming more liberal. A majority of Americans now supports gay marriage. 63 percent say gay couples should be able to adopt children. Almost no one believes women shouldn’t be able to have a career anymore with the same rights and benefits as men. 55 percent recognizes that human activity contributes to climate change against 41 percent who don’t.

It would be more difficult for Clinton to win the 2016 election on a protectionist platform. Most Americans — 58 percent — see foreign trade as an opportunity rather than a threat. That is up from 41 percent in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected. At the time, most Americans were wary of trade liberalization.

Interestingly, relatively more Democrats than Republicans favor free trade. In 2008, just 36 percent of Democrats said trade represented an opportunity for the country. Now 61 percent does against 51 percent of Republican voters — when their party is generally more pro-business.

Should Republicans nominate a presidential candidate who not only supports free trade but is also comfortable about the country’s changing social attitudes, Clinton could be in serious trouble.