With a primary debate against an emboldened left-wing candidate looming, Hillary Clinton has announced her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade deal recently concluded by 12 nations, including the US, and endorsed by President Barack Obama.
The former Secretary of State spent her time in the Obama administration promoting the TPP talks, but she told PBS’s Judy Woodruff that “as of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it.”
“I still believe in the goal of a strong and fair trade agreement in the Pacific as part of a broader strategy both at home and abroad, just as I did when I was Secretary of State,” Clinton said in a statement sent to reporters. “But the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don’t believe this agreement has met it.”
While Clinton is already under fire on Twitter for flip-flopping, it’s not really fair to force a candidate to prejudge the outcome of a negotiation that ended more than a year after she left office, or blame an appointee for promoting the president’s policies.
Clinton had previously warned that the TPP might not meet her standards for protecting American workers and wages. Now that the deal has concluded, it appears at least some of the problems she and others on the left identified were resolved. But other issues—noticeably provisions on currency manipulation—were left out of the deal, giving her reason to reject it.
In her statement, she also made the argument that a lack of investment in its workers at home puts the US at too much of a disadvantage in free trade.
“Republicans have blocked the investments that we need and that President Obama has proposed in infrastructure, education, clean energy, and innovation. They’ve refused to raise the minimum wage or defend workers’ rights or adequately fund job training,” she said in the statement. “We’re going into this with one arm tied behind our backs.”
Still, the timing is suspect: It’s not clear how Clinton learned more than the public about the accord, the final text of which still has yet to be released. An inquiry to the Clinton campaign was not returned.
But there is the debate scheduled for Oct. 13, where Clinton’s biggest challenge will come from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is vying against Clinton for the presidential nomination and has seized the polling lead in the key early state of New Hampshire.
Despite polls suggesting that Democrats are more likely to support expanded free trade than other voters, Sanders has been an unabashed opponent of the trade deal, joining many left-leaning Democrats—including prominent legislators such as House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi—in opposing an agreement they fear will undermine US workers at the expense of multi-national corporations.
Sanders had been expected to bash Clinton’s advocacy of the deal during the debate, but now will be reduced to asking what took her so long to oppose it. Meanwhile, Clinton, who wants to avoid alienating Sanders’ supporters, will now be able to stress her similarities with the populist senator.
But her centrist supporters—as well as the business lobby—that fondly remember her husband’s administration will be disappointed that she abandoned the effort. Advocates argued that, compared to previous trade deals, the TPP is more favorable to US workers, while still boosting growth and deepening important geopolitical linkages with Pacific countries.
This populist turn may highlight Clinton’s pragmatism at the expense of her principles. Then again, Obama also promised to re-negotiate NAFTA during his primary campaign—with the TPP offered up as the outcome of that pledge.
Without backing from Clinton, who is still seen as the likely Democratic nominee despite Sanders’ surge, it will be harder for Obama to corral the votes to ratify the deal. The president managed to secure the support of enough members of Congress this summer to be able to obtain legislative approval of the TPP on a fast-track, simple majority vote, but it remains to be seen if the deal will be ratified. Some of the provisions that might have recovered liberal votes—like a compromise that lowers protection of pharmaceutical intellectual property in the US while raising it in developing economies—angered conservative lawmakers who strongly backed the pact.
If Obama can’t get the deal approved, it will be left for the next administration—perhaps run by Clinton—to force it through Congress, re-negotiate it, or abandon it entirely.