Shribman: A rightward shift in the politics of trade

David Shribman

The White House is at war with its allies and depending on its critics to win negotiating authority for a trade agreement it desperately wants. The leading Democratic advocate of the president’s proposal voted against it in a critical Senate roll call.

The president openly ridiculed the Democratic senator who is the leading voice on the issue that he believes is the most significant domestic challenge facing the United States.

The country is in new political waters. This is not what President Barack Obama had in mind when he vowed to change how Washington works.

This is how it used to work: Presidents always seek fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements. In the end, they always get it.

Lawmakers always express skepticism about the labor and trade elements of these pacts. In the end, they cave.

The familiar pattern didn’t turn out in the familiar way last week, though lawmakers engaged in a complicated pas-de-deux that provided the embattled president with the embarrassing equivalent of a do-over.

The immediate consensus was that a stunning event had occurred in the capital.

The initial rejection of fast-track negotiating authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) reflected vast changes in American political life.

It also reflected deep problems in the ties between the president and Democrats on Capitol Hill, underlined how Obama’s frosty relationship with his Republican rivals endanger a measure that both support, illuminated how dangerous is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s instinctive caution as she pursues the Democratic presidential nomination, and revealed important tensions between some of the leading GOP candidates and the constituencies they hope to mine for support in next winter’s primaries.

Here’s the new political alignment in Washington, building since the NAFTA debate in the Bill Clinton years and now firmly in place: The Republicans no longer are a protectionist party. The Democrats no longer are a free-trade party.

(Only one Democrat sided with Obama in the initial vote last week, requiring the frantic back-room negotiations that provided the pact with new life. There may be no other important vote in American history when a president won only a single vote from his own party in the Senate.)

The United States, moreover, no longer has the robust free-trade impulse it once possessed growing out of national confidence in the skills of American workers and the attractiveness of American products in a world market.

Then there’s this: The president doesn’t get — and in the view of this Congress, at least, doesn’t deserve — the benefit of the doubt in trade negotiations.

There are even larger political difficulties on the Democratic side.

But it is the woman who is not running for president who poses the biggest danger for both Obama and Clinton.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — the leading voice on the income-disparity issue that the president and Ms. Clinton have embraced with ardor — has only stiffened her opposition to the pact since Obama said that “her arguments don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny” and “she’s absolutely wrong.”

Warren has focused much of her criticism on the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement element of the TPP, which she says would undercut American sovereignty by allowing foreign companies to sidestep American courts in trade disputes. But her opposition to the pact reflects broader worries about the economic prospects for American workers — concerns reflected in the Journal/NBC Poll, which shows the greatest opposition to free trade among those with high school educations or less.

The TPP debate isn’t over — it’s likely the agreement will come back for a meaningful congressional vote on its merits — and neither are the tensions it generates. Eventually Clinton will be forced to weigh in on it, and the president may be forced to adjust his lobbying techniques as Warren rallies her allies in opposition to the president — and perhaps to Clinton.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.