President Barack Obama wanted Congress to pass a variety of trade-related proposals, and he didn’t want to have to rely on Republican votes in order to see that happen. He lobbied his fellow Democrats in favor of trade, and he lobbied them hard. In the end, it wasn’t enough. On Friday, the president endured a stern censure from the very members of the party for whom he once served as a savior. Barack Obama’s presidency is all but over. It’s Hillary Clinton’s party now, but she does not seem inclined to lead it so much as to emerge as its supervisor by default and through a process of attrition. She is not in a hurry to rush that process, and there is no alternative Democratic leader waiting in the wings. Inadvertently, what House Democrats did on Friday was to decapitate their own party.
By a hair’s margin, the GOP-dominated House passed fast-track trade promotional authority (TPA) that will allow the president to prioritize trade negotiations and conclude the terms of a free trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim countries. But by a resounding 302 to 126-vote margin, however, the House rejected a Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) proposal passed in the Senate. The TAA, a giveaway to unions and other labor interests that will potentially be negatively impacted as a result of the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was soundly rejected.
Obama was not merely supportive of the passage of both TPA and TAA; he pressed his fellow Democrats in the House to pass both proposals. During the annual indulgence that is the Congressional baseball game at Nationals Park on Thursday, the president surprised the press when made an impromptu visit to the Democratic dugout. He smiled and waved to the adoring crowds, but Obama wasn’t there merely to soak in the applause; he was there to work House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It was clear that his cajoling was unsuccessful on Friday morning when the president made another surprise visit to the Capitol Building to implore his fellow Democrats not to abandon him. None of this extraordinary effort was enough.
“[A] president who has long kept Congress at arm’s length may have paid a price,” the New York Times reported. And Democrats were not shy about scolding the president’s approach to lobbying his fellow Democrats in the press and on the record. “I wish there had been much better outreach,” Texas Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar lamented.
Other anonymous Democrats were even sterner in their rebukes of Obama, according to the background quotes they gave CNN host Jake Tapper. “Pelosi sealed the deal to vote no.” “Democrats believe they often are taken [for] granted and not appreciated.” “[Obama] was fine until he turned it at the end and became indignant and alienated some folks.”
“Democrats desert their president,” screamed an apoplectic New York Times headline. “As they return to their home districts for the weekend, Democrats will now have the distinct pleasure of experiencing what Republicans have undergone for the last few years – a narrative of their party in disarray and divided.”
The Obama presidency is over. For Democrats, the transition into the era of Hillary Clinton began in earnest on Friday, but it did so without her participation. On the issue of trade, as well as a whole host of pressing matters related to public policy, Hillary Clinton has chosen to keep quiet.
From the nation’s center-left editorialists to Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Democratic opinion leaders are vocally frustrated by Hillary Clinton’s conspicuous silence on the issue of free trade. But Hillary has been silent on virtually every other matter that isn’t a gauzy appeal to emotion or a recapitulation of long-settled consensus liberal opinion. Moreover, Hillary Clinton has taken a position on trade, and specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership: She called it the “gold standard in trade agreements.” To the extent that Democrats are desirous of hearing Clinton speak up, it is to hear her unequivocally renounce her position on trade and lead a party that has demonstrated clearly that it rejects free trade agreements in their already chosen direction. In other words, they want her to lie.
What’s most bizarre about all this is that polls show that the Democratic rank-and-file resents free trade less than do grassroots Republicans. “[T]he loud minority of Democratic activists and voters behind the party’s zombie anti-trade dogma makes smart, globally-minded presidential primary candidates feel as though they must pretend to be something else,” the colorful Stephen Stromberg wrote for the Washington Post. And that’s exactly what Democrats want: someone else.
But they also want to win in 2016, and they know that, as much as they’d love it, Bernie Sanders won’t get that job done. So Democrats will allow Hillary Clinton to pretend to be that someone else, but she needs to engage in that project of reinvention soon. Hers is a party adrift and leaderless. For all the talk of Clinton as decisive aspiring commander-in-chief, she has demonstrated nothing but cowardice when confronting even modest challenges posed by her domestic allies. Given this display, how are Americans supposed to have confidence in Clinton to confront adversity in the Oval Office?