Renewed Trade Debate Puts Presidential Candidates On The Spot

Apr 22, 2015
Originally published on April 22, 2015 6:08 pm

In this early stage of the campaign for president, the focus has been more on atmospherics — and dare we say platitudes — than issues.

This is the "getting to know you" phase.

But there's action on Capitol Hill on Wednesday — a controversial trade bill — that is putting potential candidates, especially Democrats, on the spot.

For declared GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, it's pretty simple. They support the fast-track trade authority President Obama is asking for and the big 12-country trade deal the Obama administration is negotiating known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

It is also quite simple for Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator considering a presidential run, possibly as a Democrat.

"TPP will be a disaster for American workers," he said through a megaphone at a union rally this week.

Sanders' view — either you're against it, or you're against American workers. When it comes to the two trade pacts currently being debated, labor unions are almost universally opposed. But from there, the battle lines are drawn in unexpected places.

President Obama is pushing hard for the trade deals as are pro-business Republicans. But some Tea Party Republicans and a large share of Democrats are on the other side. That includes former Maryland governor and likely Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley.

"We need to stop entering into bad trade deals. I'm for trade. And I'm for good trade deals," O'Malley said in a Web ad released this week. "But I'm against bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

That ad contrasts with the dilemma faced by Hillary Clinton, the only declared presidential candidate on the Democratic side. As first lady and secretary of state, she has a long record of supporting trade deals.

In New Hampshire on Tuesday, however, after a shouted question from a reporter, Clinton weighed in without taking sides.

"Well, any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security," she said. "We have to do our part in making sure we have the capabilities and the skills to be competitive."

As secretary of state in the Obama administration, she talked up the Trans-Pacific Partnership and was less vocal about her reservations.

"The so-called TPP will lower barriers, raise standards and drive long-term growth across the region," she said in 2012. "It will cover 40 percent of the world's total trade and establish strong protections for workers and the environment."

In another speech in 2010, she described it as "an innovative, ambitious, multilateral free trade agreement."

Now she's trying to navigate between a president she served and the unions and Democratic base voters she needs in 2016.

"I think she's done a pretty good job of walking that tightrope now," said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO. He says for labor activists and many Democratic voters, these trade issues are tied directly to concerns about wages and income inequality.

"It's becoming a really important issue and there's a spotlight on it and I think that some people will walk a tightrope," Rosenthal said. "But when all is said and done voters and activists are going to want to know where their elected officials stand."

Clinton's spokesman last week said she's watching the process closely. But, so far she's carefully avoiding the kind of stand that would alienate labor or, for that matter, the business community.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

So far in this early stage of the campaign for president, the focus has been more on atmospherics and - we daresay - platitudes than issues. This is the getting-to-know-you phase. But there's action on Capitol Hill today that is putting candidates on the spot - a trade bill that's controversial, especially for Democrats. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For declared GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, it's pretty simple. They support the fast-track trade authority President Obama is asking for and the big 12-country trade deal the Obama administration is negotiating known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And for Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator considering a presidential run possibly as a Democrat, it is also quite simple. He spoke through a megaphone at a union rally earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: TPP will be a disaster for American workers.

KEITH: His view - either you're against it, or you're against American workers. When it comes to the two trade pacts currently being debated, labor unions are almost universally opposed. But from there, the battle lines are drawn in unexpected places. President Obama is pushing hard for the trade deals as are pro-business Republicans. Some Tea Party Republicans and a large share of Democrats are on the other side. And that includes former Maryland Governor and likely Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MARTIN O'MALLEY: We need to stop entering into bad trade deals. I'm for trade. And I'm for good trade deals. But I'm against bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

KEITH: That O'Malley Web ad contrasts with the dilemma faced by Hillary Clinton, the only declared presidential candidate on the Democratic side. As first lady and secretary of state, she has a long record of supporting trade deals. In New Hampshire yesterday, however, after a shouted question from a reporter, she weighed in without taking sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security. And we have to do our part in making sure we have the capabilities and the skills to be competitive.

KEITH: As secretary of state in the Obama administration, she talked up the Trans-Pacific Partnership and was less vocal about her reservations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: The so-called TPP will lower barriers, raise standards and drive long-term growth across the region. It will cover 40 percent of the world's total trade and establish strong protections for workers and the environment.

KEITH: In another speech in 2010, she described it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: An innovative, ambitious, multilateral free trade agreement.

KEITH: Now she's trying to navigate between a president she served and the unions and Democratic base voters she needs in 2016.

STEVE ROSENTHAL: I think she's done a pretty good job of walking that tightrope, you know.

KEITH: Steve Rosenthal is a former political director for the AFL-CIO. He says for labor activists and many Democratic voters, these trade issues are tied directly to concerns about wages and income inequality.

ROSENTHAL: It's becoming a really important issue, and there's a spotlight on it. And I think that, you know, some people will walk a tightrope. But when all is said and done, voters are going to want to know where their elected officials and candidates stand.

KEITH: Clinton's spokesman said last week said she's watching the process closely. But so far, she's carefully avoiding the kind of stand that would alienate labor or, for that matter, the business community. Tamara Keith NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.