THE BLOG

Are 2016 Democrats Wrong on Trade?

05/05/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

The 2016 presidential election is provoking a reckoning within the Democratic Party on trade. On one side is President Barack Obama, who is negotiating a landmark free trade agreement with 11 other Pacific Rim countries called the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The BBC has said it would be the largest trade deal of all time, and the president has spent years highlighting its importance for America's domestic needs and overseas agenda. Obama's critics on the left Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Gov. Martin O'Malley and the recently announced 2016 Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders have been treating the deal like a punching bag, arguing that it poses a risk to American sovereignty and low-wage manufacturing jobs. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has stayed quiet on the issue since her time promoting the deal as Secretary of State, while former Rhode Island Governor and U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee stands out in his support, having joined 15 other governors on a letter to the president and party leaders in Dec. 2013 advocating TPP and two other trade deals.

While Sen. Warren has couched most of her criticism of the TPP in easy political terms -- that the negotiations have been too secretive and will ultimately give corporations new powers to challenge national environmental and labor protections -- her stance on free trade more broadly, particularly given her new leadership position in the party, must also come under close scrutiny. Former Maryland Governor and likely 2016 candidate Martin O'Malley has made no secret of his opposition to free trade deals like TPP, and a wide variety of media outlets are already forecasting the party's turn to protectionism. Whatever the politics may be of trashing your party's lame-duck president, if the Democratic Party wants to continue to lead the country and believes the United States has a role in leading the world, it must quickly abandon this insular turn and revive the democratic spirit at the heart of free trade.

President Bill Clinton proved in the 1990s that free trade agreements -- when poorly negotiated -- can have unintended consequences. The American economy was only just beginning to feel the impact of globalization, and no one could predict how the digital age would speed these changes. But still, Democrats cannot afford to abandon the basic idea of free trade. American manufacturing in the coming years will rely on reaching massive new open markets, fueled by consumers who can afford our high-tech products. Maybe 1994 Mexico doesn't meet these criteria, but contemporary Japan, Australia, Chile and New Zealand definitely do. As President Obama has remarked on numerous occasions in response to criticism that the deal will exaggerate the problems with NAFTA: This trade deal is not NAFTA! In fact, the president is renegotiating the original deal with Canada and Mexico, while expanding our environmental and labor protections abroad, so American manufacturers are not only ones in the partnership who have to answer to their workers and nation's citizens. Any Democrat opposing TPP on the basis of NAFTA isn't offering a trade policy for America's future, but rather guaranteeing that the jobs we have now are the best ones Americans can expect.

And as much as we may want to deny it, free trade is foreign policy. The countries that trade together stay together, and the TPP participants are worthy allies as we move deeper into a century flush with possibilities, but clouded by growing challenges from Russia and China. These two countries want more control over their neighbors and are not looking to negotiate. Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore are coming to us in the hopes that strong, open trade will create the conditions that prevent rivals from encroaching on their basic rights and sovereignty. This bill is not a giveaway to these Asian countries or corporations, but a trade between allies, intended to strengthen the underlying relationships.

There are legitimate concerns regarding TPP. President Obama has sought fast-track authority for the final bill, a necessary and uncontroversial step, but instead of showing the public the bill's text before asking for a vote on this authority, he has kept it confidential. Criticism of the president's efforts to consolidate support, however, should not be confused with the current direction of the Democratic Party's prospective leaders. Sen. Sanders has made killing TPP an integral part of his nascent campaign, and Gov. O'Malley agrees with him. Clinton has not revealed how she will campaign on trade, but we are already seeing signs that Sen. Warren's influence is driving her away from the president. Vice President Biden would be more likely to assert the importance of this new kind of trade deal, but it is by no means clear he is going to run. Gov. Chafee, on the other hand, is right on trade and -- probably -- running for president.

These divides are not superficial, and they are not going away. TPP offers the United States a one-time shot to reshape the world in our image and our favor. It also poses real challenges that should be debated within the party but not used by party elders to divide us. We know we cannot be the party of protectionism, and we need leaders like President Obama, who are willing to call out members practicing politics over policy. Obama's positions should be our party's in 2016. We should be the party of consistency, and let Republicans continue to outdo each other moving further and further to the right. Sens. Sanders and Warren must understand policy can't be made on the stump, and this deal is about more than just their own party prerogatives.