Efforts to approve fast-track trade authority were stalled in the Senate this week, blocked by Democrats on a failed cloture vote Tuesday. As much as this was a setback for President Barack Obama who has sought that legislation as part of his efforts to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a groundbreaking 12-nation trade deal, it was really just the first salvo in congressional trade negotiations and hardly unexpected.
Foreign trade is a tough issue for the Democrats right now — as many predicted it would be since the Republicans took control of the Senate last November. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is leading a charge against a potential TPP following an overall political narrative that has broad appeal to her party's traditional labor union base — haves versus have-nots, the 1 percent against the 99 percent, Wall Street against Main Street, Big Business versus Mom-and-Pop.
President Obama, whom Americans have entrusted with the nation's actual economy and not merely with fashioning compelling political slogans about it, knows that a reduction of tariffs and other trade barriers around the Pacific Rim is not only in the best economic interests of the United States but advances critical national security concerns in China's backyard as well. He has lately gotten a bit testy with Senator Warren — raising ire by calling her a "politician like everybody else," as if the former Harvard Law School professor could not be so sullied with such a title. That seems pretty modest by Washington standards and hardly sexist as some contend. Wake us up when they approach the standards set by Republicans talking about Sen. Ted Cruz in recent years — Sen. John McCain's "wacko bird" comment, for instance.
Nobody is panicking because the White House and most members of Congress recognize that there are pro-trade Democratic votes to be found in the Senate, but first, the Republican majority is going to have to demonstrate some flexibility. As much as conservatives would like to blame this all on Mr. Obama, such criticisms actually make him look like a stronger leader — someone willing to challenge his party's ideological wing on a fundamental economic issue. Can the GOP leadership make the same claim?
Clearly, a lot of posturing is going around on all sides. The Democratic complaint that the TPP is being negotiated "secretly" ignores the very nature of diplomatic negotiations — not to mention the right of members of Congress to be fully briefed on the status of talks, albeit confidentially. Republicans need to recognize that putting together the necessary 60 votes to avoid a filibuster means making greater concessions. The most obvious is to combine the fast-track bill with off-setting measures backed by Democrats that could beef up trade enforcement, address currency manipulation and ensure adequate compensation and job training for U.S. workers who stand to lose employment as a direct result of changes in trade policy.
The devil is in the details of the TPP, and whether the trade deal ultimately deserves to be approved is a matter for another day. Right now, the question is merely whether Congress should grant the president the trade promotion authority his predecessors have been given under similar circumstances for decades. Congress still gets a final say over whatever emerges from the talks.
Meanwhile, it's discouraging to see a serious trade debate reduced to political gamesmanship. Bad enough that Hillary Clinton, a die-hard TPP advocate when she served as secretary of state, has suddenly lost her voice on trade, but what one hears from some of the other presidential contenders is bordering on brain-dead. Former Gov. Martin O'Malley is against it, and so is Sen. Bernie Sanders. On the GOP side, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina have been highly critical, too. "Personally, I wouldn't trust this administration to negotiate a deal on a secondhand Subaru" is how Mr. Huckabee has framed the fast-track debate while still claiming to be in favor of free trade. Talk about making things personal.
This week, the Democrats in the Senate chose to invoke the kind of obstructionist tactics that Republicans used frequently when they were in the minority. Whether they'll be as rigid as the Senate GOP of recent years remains to be seen. Better for all involved to go back to the table and seek a compromise on what, admittedly, Sens. Ron Wyden and Orrin Hatch had viewed as a bipartisan agreement. Instead of whining, advocates can put themselves to better use making the case to the American public for Economics 101 and why the U.S., including the working class, stands to benefit substantially from a reasonable, thoughtful and multilateral reduction in the obstacles to foreign trade.