The Trade Policy Clown Show of 2015


Great nations are not normally in the habit of allowing childish temper tantrums to dictate economic policy. Great nations are even less inclined to sacrifice an excellent economic deal because of a temper tantrum. And yet, when we examine the frantic and immature back-and-forth regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Act, we see that the United States–a great nation despite the example often set by its “leaders”–has been flirting over the past twenty-four hours with the option of throwing away an excellent economic deal with both hands, in part because trade protectionists have gotten their feelings hurt.

I alluded to this issue in this post, but it is worth reminding ourselves that among the complaints that trade protectionists have regarding the White House’s stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Act, one of them is that President Obama is being unkind to them.

No, seriously:

President Obama’s performance in pushing for approval of fast track legislation of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, in which he’s allied with Republicans and has spent the last week castigating and insulting liberal Democrats, has been one of the most bizarre and ill-advised performances of his presidency.

I spent many years working for senior Democratic Senators such as Lloyd Bentsen and House Democratic leaders beginning with the legendary Speaker Tip O’Neill, and have never seen any president of either party insult so many members of his own party’s base and members of the House and Senate as Mr. Obama has in his weeks of tirades against liberals on trade.

In Mr. Obama’s speech at Nike last week, his comments to Matt Bai of Yahoo over the weekend, and White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s comments to reporters on Monday, Mr. Obama and his White House staff have repeated a string of personal insults directed against prominent liberal Democrats in Congress, liberal Democrats across the nation, organized labor, and leading public interest and environmental groups who share doubts about the TPP trade deal.

Mr. Obama’s tirades on trade have included accusations that these liberal Democrats are ignorant about trade policy, insincere when offering their opinions, motivated by politics and not the national interest, and backward looking towards the past. Obama’s repeated attacks against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in which he charged that Warren’s concern about the trade bill is motivated not by a reasoned view of what is right for America but by her personal political motivations, is one of the most dishonest and repellant examples of character assassination and contempt by any American president, against any leading member of his own party, in my lifetime.

To all of this, Republicans can reply with “welcome to our world. Make yourselves comfortable. We’ve had to put up with this kind of behavior since January 20, 2009. About bloody time you noticed how annoying it is.” As Jennifer Rubin writes, “[s]even years of President Obama’s ad hominem attacks have degraded the country’s political debate.” Not all of the attacks may have been–strictly speaking–ad hominem, but many of them have been insulting and offensive. I freely admit that there is a certain pleasure involved in watching liberals who cheered on the worst kind of presidential insults directed at Republicans, now clutching at their pearls and casting about for fainting couches when the president makes fellow liberals the targets of his playground bullying.

But two things: (1) Insults directed at trade protectionists are, in fact, richly deserved, as trade protectionists are economic know-nothings who are entirely willing to sacrifice the well-being of the country in order to further their own parochial interests, and in order to play to the deepest fears of an American populace still fighting to recover from the devastating effects of the Great Recession. And (2) even if the insults are childish and unwarranted, those in a position of national leadership should not allow their brittle sensitivities and their precious snowflake personalities to lead them to oppose an excellent trade deal simply because they want to get back at the Big Meanie at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It would be nice if our “leaders” did right by the country first, and then got around to settling petty personal grudges and assuaging wounds to their psyches inflicted by presidential pronouncements. But apparently, that is close to asking too much.

It’s bad enough that Washington politicians have once again shown that they have all of the emotional maturity of worst group of kindergarteners in the History of Ever. But the situation is even worse when one considers the substantive damage that has been done to American economic and foreign policy by irresponsible trade protectionists. Back to Jennifer Rubin:

On the substance, the Democrats have become the small-minded party of anti-free trade and retrenchment. Ironically, the part that lauds “soft power” is willing to undermine a major part of the soft power equation. As David Adesnik writes: “The benefits of [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] extend beyond economic opportunities. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently said that ‘TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.’ This is because Carter understands that the agreement is essential to the U.S. ‘rebalance’ toward Asia. Especially as shrinking defense budgets weaken the military component of the rebalance, TPP has become an even greater priority for policymakers.”

It is not a pretty sight, but it should cause some pause among media elites who pride themselves on intellectual prowess and technocratic expertise while deploring Republicans’ unreasoned arguments and personal attacks. Heal thyself, Democrats. A party that resorts to food fights and petty insults in lieu of civil debate is not capable of leading.

I remember when House Republicans voted against the TARP bailout plan because they claimed that Nancy Pelosi poisoned the atmosphere with a partisan speech. The House GOP was widely derided as a group of whiny babies as a consequence, with Barney Frank stating “because somebody hurt [the House Republicans’] feelings, they decide to punish the country? I mean, I would not have imputed that degree of pettiness and hypersensitivity.” I wonder if Frank will have anything to say about Senate Democrats, who on the issue of trade, emulated the behavior of House Republicans precisely. If Frank has any intellectual honesty, he’ll say something properly caustic about the fact that his own party decided to throw emotional maturity by the wayside and hurt the country in the process.

Instead of engaging in an interesting and informative debate regarding trade policy, Democrats are consumed with a feud between Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, one that features a sitting United States senator accusing the president from his own party of being sexist, and the White House demanding in response that he apologize. Instead of dealing with the economic challenges of the twenty-first century, Democrats are dealing with an identity crisis. Meanwhile, we pay our hard-earned tax money to watch this meltdown, when we could watch our own kids behave more maturely for free.

But don’t worry. A compromise is in the works! Isn’t life grand?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced a plan that allows for a controversial provision that Democrats have been demanding – legislation targeting China’s alleged manipulation of its currency to make its exports cheaper – a separate vote Thursday afternoon. Not a part of the broader trade package, the China currency legislation has been opposed by the Obama administration but favored by many senators from Midwest states hit hard by manufacturing job losses in the last two decades.

This legislation, which also contains other measures for enforcing trade deals, is likely to pass the Senate but its ultimate fate remains in doubt in the House, with a potential presidential veto awaiting it. Still, once that measure is taken care of, McConnell said, the Senate would move to considering Trade Promotion Authority, which would give Obama a process that could make it easier to eventually win passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the expansive trade and tariff deal that the president is negotiating with 11 Pacific-rim nations. The path to passage continues to be most perilous in the House, where Democratic support for trade deals has cratered in recent years; it will be considered most likely in early June.

The Senate will also consider a bill that helps workers who, according to a Labor Department declaration, are deemed to have lost their jobs because their U.S. plant moved overseas searching for a cheaper labor force.

So, in order to do the right thing on trade, the Senate has to vote for amendments that may not pass the House, and will certainly be vetoed by the president. In addition, the Senate will consider trade adjustment assistance legislation that . . . um . . . doesn’t stand a sand castle’s chance in an earthquake of working. These are the hoops we have to jump through and the insults to human intelligence we have to endure in order to do right by our economy and our country.

Did I call this entire spectacle a “clown show” in my title for this piece? I apologize profusely; such a characterization is massively unfair to actual clowns and their actual shows.

(Photo Credit.)


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