PHILADELPHIA — Democrats have long maintained some skepticism about trade in their party platforms, but the 2016 platform adopted here took it a step further, disappointing retailers and brands concerned about its impact on U.S. policy toward global commerce.
Amid a backdrop of signs opposing the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on the convention floor here, the party’s platform reflected a softer version of the antitrade sentiment raised by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But it also revealed a shift away from free-trade principles seen in past blueprints.
“Democrats acknowledge that for millions of Americans, global trade has failed to live up to its promise — with too many countries breaking the rules and too many corporations outsourcing jobs at the expense of American workers and communities,” the platform said. “Trade deals often boosted the profits of large corporations, while at the same time failing to protect workers’ rights, labor standards, the environment and public health,” adding that the party needs to end the “race to the bottom” and develop policies that support U.S. jobs.
TPP is particularly important to retailers and brands that are hoping to see trade barriers lowered and more open markets in the Asia-Pacific. TPP includes the U.S., Australia, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand and would encompass nearly 40 percent of the world’s GDP.
Clinton, who has pledged to appoint a strong trade prosecutor if elected, has said she opposes TPP as it is currently written, a shift from the support she gave it when she was Secretary of State in the Obama administration.
But TPP also appears to have become a rallying cry — particularly from supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who spoke here Monday night attempting to unify the party — against trade deals that many see as the cause behind job losses and economic woes.
Four years ago, the Democratic platform under President Obama called for supporting TPP negotiations, expanding trade with Latin America and Caribbean countries, meeting a goal of doubling exports by the end of 2014 and supporting permanent normal trade relations with Russia, which joined the WTO last month.
The only reference to TPP in this year’s platform was admonition that the party “should never enter into a trade agreement that prevents our government, or other governments, from putting in place rules that protect the environment, food safety, or the health of American citizens or others around the world.”
“These are the standards Democrats believe must be applied to all trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” the platform said.
The 2016 platform does not include a single reference about the benefits of trade or exports, a point that did not go unnoticed by industry officials.
“The contrast with 2012 is amazing,” said David Spooner, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, who was the chief textile and apparel negotiator at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative from 2002 to 2006. “In 2012, the Democratic party platform praised the approval of South Korea, Panama and Columbia free-trade deals and praised President Obama’s effort to conclude TPP. Remarkably, this shows you how much has changed in the past four years.”
Spooner pointed to language in the 2012 platform in which the Democrats said they remained committed to finding more markets for American-made goods, including TPP.
“There is no language like that at all in the 2016 platform,” he said. “Clearly the compromise was between parroting the concerns of the antiTPP wing of the party while omitting any [outright] opposition to TPP from the platform,” which is what Sanders and his supporters were advocating.
Sanders did win on one key issue in the party platform — a call for a $15 minimum wage.
“We believe that Americans should earn at least $15 an hour and have the right to form or join a union and will work in every way we can — in Congress and the federal government, in states and with the private sector — to reach this goal,” the platform said.
Rick Helfenbein, president and chief executive officer at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said: “We all know where the Republican candidates stand on trade. There is a hard ‘no’ at the top of the ticket and a muted ‘no’ at the bottom.”
Helfenbein was pointing to the Republican’s party platform adopted last week in Cleveland that shifted from the traditional Republican pro-trade principles to more skepticism about its benefits.
“The Democratic ticket has been more circumspect — until last night,” he added. “Those of us in the trade community were hopeful that a platinum TPP standard would eventually replace the gold, and trade progress would continue on its path (adjusted but not decimated). With the temperature rising last night, and with [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump receiving high marks for his antitrade positions, we may see further movement by the Democratic party to ice trade for two or more years following the election.”
Julia Hughes, president at the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said, “In other sections of the platform they talk about our leadership in the world, global policies, American values, labor values and antitrafficking values. Those are areas where trade supports the positive policy that is in the platform and yet there is no reference to any kind of positive impact from trade. That is very disappointing, but probably not surprising given how trade has been polarized in both conventions.”
The platform took an expected hard line on China, which it has done in the past, and called for strengthening enforcement of existing trade rules and tools, including cracking down on currency manipulation, subsidies and counterfeits.
Industry officials generally were supportive of Clinton’s vice presidential pick, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who has a solid pro-trade record, although he recently came out against TPP to align himself with Clinton.
“Sen. Kaine represents a safe choice. He has administrative and legislative experience, and is well-liked on both sides of the aisle. Secretary Clinton is trying to field a ticket that exudes competence and confidence,” said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the AAFA.
Kaine’s pro-trade credentials, which include support of Trade Promotion Authority, “are a strong indicator that Secretary Clinton envisions trade engagement as playing a positive role for the economy,” Lamar said.
“His last-minute rejection of TPP, however, is troubling,” he added. “It is an obvious effort to appeal to antitrade elements of the Democratic party. With both the Clinton-Kaine and the Trump-Pence tickets now campaigning against this important landmark trade agreement, this is a stark reminder that TPP needs to be approved by Congress in this calendar year.”