WASHINGTON — The path forward for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal keeps getting more complicated.
President Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest was forced to go on the defensive on Thursday for the 12-nation trade deal, a day after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner in the presidential race, said she isn’t in favor of it.
The surprise announcement on Thursday by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) that he was dropping out of the race for Speaker of the House left the Republican conference looking for a leader at a time when TPP is heading to Congress for consideration and eventually critical and tough votes.
Trade ministers unveiled a deal on TPP on Monday that includes the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand, and encompasses some 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
Clinton created a dustup on Wednesday when she came out against TPP in an interview on PBS, distancing herself from Obama, who has made the agreement a cornerstone of his trade agenda. While serving as Secretary of State, Clinton worked to build support for TPP, even hailing it as the “gold standard” of trade agreements in a speech in Australia in 2012.
But in the heat of the primary season, Clinton appears to have shifted her stance to cater to the more liberal wing of the Democratic party and also better position herself more closely with her competitors, particularly Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, according to some political pundits.
“Obviously, any time a prominent party leader like Secretary Clinton decides to take an antifree-trade stance, it complicates the process for passage,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation. “It throws it in the middle of the Democratic primary. It was already going to be there, but unless somebody like Joe Biden gets into the race and starts talking about the benefits of TPP, it doesn’t allow anybody on the Democratic side to talk to Democratic voters about why free trade is a good thing.
“This will be Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton agreeing on the evils of trade with the Pacific nations and I’m not sure that is a constructive dialogue,” French continued. “So that is a setback.”
Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said: “The political developments over the last 30 hours are definitely a negative for TPP.
“She has set her course,” Hufbauer said of Clinton. “The only question is whether she will…move to more outright opposition or whether she will stay in the mode she is in — that she could have done better here.”
Hufbauer said the presidential debates — the first Democratic debate is slated for Tuesday — will “harden her position.”
“Right now, you have to speak to your base and the Democratic base [has] voters who basically don’t like trade,” he said.
Clinton’s position on TPP was a blow to the Obama administration, which is in full swing trying to sell the trade deal to the American public and Congress. On Thursday, reporters peppered Obama’s top spokesman at the White House daily press briefing seeking reaction to Clinton’s stance and comments.
In the more pointed exchanges, Earnest was asked whether the president was angry at Clinton, whether she was a “flip-flopper” and whether the administration was frustrated that she is now opposed to a deal that she helped work on. Earnest appeared reluctant to take on Clinton directly or criticize her past positions on TPP and instead pointed to political calculations inherent in any presidential race, while defending TPP.
“The president remembers that she did not support the Trade Promotion Authority legislation,” Earnest said, referring to a contentious battle in June that pitted many Congressional Democrats against Obama on the sweeping trade powers. “Over the summer we had a pretty rancorous debate here in Washington, a lot of twists and turns and a couple of snafus even popped up. But we were able to successfully navigate all of those problems and build a durable bipartisan majority in both the House and Senate to pass it, even though it wasn’t supported by any of the Democratic presidential candidates. We continue to have confidence that we will be able to build a similar bipartisan majority in the Congress to pass, to ratify the TPP agreement.”
He acknowledged that Clinton worked hand in hand with the administration in the early days on TPP, but also noted that Obama is cognizant of the political strategy involved in running a presidential campaign, having won two terms himself.
“As the winner of the last two presidential elections held in this country, the president understands that presidential politics are tough,” Earnest said. “And he understands that it is the responsibility of individual candidates to distinguish themselves, to give voters a reason to vote for them and support their vision. That means distinguishing themselves from their competitors and in some cases that means distinguishing themselves from the current occupant of the [White House] office. That’s part of the business.”
Meanwhile, the struggle for control in the House took a detour when the leading candidate for the speakership, McCarthy, dropped out of the race, under pressure from the GOP conservative base. The surprise announcement left the Republicans looking for a strong candidate to succeed current House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio). While he originally expected to step down at the end of the month, Boehner said Thursday he will stay on as speaker until the House votes on someone to succeed him.
Hufbauer said that although McCarthy, who is generally a pro-trade advocate, has said he will remain as House majority leader, his decision not to run for the speaker’s job could usher in a more conservative antitrade candidate.
French said he does not believe McCarthy’s decision will have an impact on TPP, which he does not expect to come up for a vote in Congress until next summer at the earliest.
“This will all be sorted out one way or another by that point,” French said. I don’t think the Republican conference will fall apart over trade and I don’t think the Tea Party will drive a wedge on trade in the party.”