I tried to stay emotionally distanced from this one. It didn't work. When the White House and Republican leaders got the votes they needed in the Senate to advance "fast track" Trade Promotion Authority on Tuesday, June 23, it was crushing.
All observers agree that fast track will soon become law, making it easier for President Barack Obama to pass the controversial trade pacts in the works with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union. That will be a serious setback to the movements for the environment, labor rights, and affordable pharmaceuticals, among others.
But after observing painful trade votes for more than 20 years, this one left me feeling that opponents should be holding their heads higher than ever before as they regroup for the next phase of the fight. Here are a few reasons why:
1. A diverse progressive coalition showed that people power can put up a real fight against big money.
The votes on fast track could not have been closer. The House vote was a razor-thin 218 to 208, while the Senate's vote to cut off debate passed without a single vote to spare.
The opposition included all the regulars from labor, environmental, faith, immigrant, food safety, and consumer groups. But some newish players also stepped up, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation on Internet access, as well as global health, civil rights, and civil liberties groups.
One result was more airtime for trade-related concerns that have been largely ignored in the past, including the anti-democratic investment rules and impacts on seafood safety, access to medicines, and climate. These new relationships will pay off in future fights. As Leo W. Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, put it, "Progressive forces have new energy from this fight."
2. The battle exposed deep divisions within the United States, empowering allies in other countries.
U.S. Democratic congressional leaders did not roll over for this vote, so opponents in other countries can now count them on their side. And who knows what will happen when citizens of other countries, who are likely to be hard-hit by these deals, see the final text of the agreement?
The example of the Free Trade Area of the Americas is instructive here. After 11 years of negotiations, those 34-country talks collapsed in 2005. President George W. Bush had fast-track authority to pass the FTAA, but that turned out not to matter. In the end, Brazil and other South American countries refused to give in to the U.S. corporate-driven agenda.
3. The showdown drove a shift in the discourse.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who in 1993 voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, rebuffed intense pressure from President Obama to support fast track and called for a "new paradigm" on trade. She called for global engagement that "enables voices from all aspects of the world's economies to be heard."
Even former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, another NAFTA promoter, stated that "A reflexive presumption in favor of free trade should not be used to justify further agreements." There were also signs of growing alliances across political lines, with perhaps the most notable example being a joint op-ed by the libertarian Cato Institute and the progressive Public Citizen.
4. Labor unions made strong vows to punish pro-fast track Democrats.
The AFL-CIO and other unions froze campaign contributions to members of Congress starting in March to pressure them to vote the right way. In the aftermath of Tuesday's Senate vote, Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton said, "for those who opposed the broadest coalition of Americans ever, we will find and support candidates who will stand with working families. That's how we'll take on the corporate Democrats who oppose a working family agenda."
Unions are a critical source of donations and boots on the ground for electoral campaigns. A strong message that labor support should not be taken for granted could change the dynamic of the party for years to come.
5. The strong opposition to Obama's trade agenda augurs well for other progressive fights.
This battle was not just about fast track. It was a reflection of increased concern about inequality and the sense that the rules have been rigged against ordinary Americans in favor of large corporations and the wealthy. We can build on this in future efforts over taxes, budgets, labor rights, and other issues.
6. The demands to see the secret text got some results.
WikiLeaks made public two draft chapters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, giving ammo to the opposition and making many wonder why we were having to rely on Julian Assange for this information.
While the fast-track bill doesn't do anywhere near enough to respond to secrecy concerns, it does require the executive branch to make public the full text of new trade agreements for 60 days before they are sent to Congress. Then lawmakers need to wait at least another 30 days before voting.
In the TPP's case, this could help stretch out the timeline into the heat of election season, when Democrats will be even more sensitive to pressure from their base. As Public Citizen President Robert Weissman noted, "When the inexcusable and anti-democratic veil of secrecy surrounding the TPP is finally lifted, and the American people see what is actually in the agreement, they are going to force their representatives in Washington to vote that deal down."