In last night's debate among Democratic presidential candidates, moderator Anderson Cooper criticized Hillary Clinton's opposition to the recently concluded "Trans-Pacific Partnership" (TPP) as mere "political expediency." Along with her opposition to the massive new trade deal, Cooper mentioned a few other issues on which Clinton's views have supposedly "evolved" over the last few decades and asked, "Will you say anything to get elected?"
Clinton's response was cool and collected. She reminded Cooper that the TPP negotiations were only concluded earlier this month, and stated that the negotiated deal "didn't meet [her] standards." When she was Secretary of State, she had hoped that the TPP would represent the "gold standard" in new trade deals, as she expressed in a speech in 2012. But as anyone who has studied these trade deals knows, the devil is in the details -- and Clinton was not in charge of the final talks that produced the details of the TPP. Now that Clinton knows what was negotiated, she has decided she doesn't support the agreement. As she explained, "I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, 'this will help raise your wages.' And I concluded I could not."
While many viewers may have been sympathetic to Cooper's allegation of opportunism, there is no reason to doubt Clinton's account of her position on trade. It would be foolish to think that because she had once supported the TPP in principle, she should remain committed to it unconditionally. Furthermore, Clinton's longer record shows an increasing reluctance to support the free trade agenda that characterized her husband's administration twenty years ago. While she has supported many past free trade agreements, she voted against the Central American Free Trade Area (CAFTA) in 2005, while she was a senator. In 2007, reflecting on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), she offered mixed support, explaining, "what we have learned is that we have to drive a tougher bargain." By 2008, she had concluded that NAFTA "had not lived up to its promises." Later that year, she broke with members of her own campaign team -- and her husband -- over a free trade agreement with Colombia.
In more recent years, Clinton's positions on trade have partly reflected the needs of the Obama Administration in which she served as Secretary of State. But they also show a commendable willingness to scrutinize the specifics. Not all trade deals are created equal, and what matters are the details. Support for one deal should not automatically translate into support for another -- but explaining how the details matter, and why, is hard to do in a campaign slogan or a quick response in a televised debate.
Cooper is just the latest in a line of commentators who have criticized Clinton for a supposed flip-flop on the TPP. Clinton's critics are quick to point out that, as Secretary of State, she was involved in the early phase of negotiations that would lead to the TPP. In that capacity, she gave many speeches on behalf of the deal, which are now being trucked out as evidence of her inconsistency. It's true that Clinton supported the TPP in the "ideas phase," when she hoped that it could be concluded in line with her priorities for a broader reconfiguration of American foreign policy -- the "pivot to Asia" that was one of the hallmarks of her leadership at the State Department. But to anyone who has studied Clinton's record on this matter, her current opposition to the TPP comes as neither surprising nor sudden.
In fact, since leaving her position as Secretary of State, she has been offering frequent, subtle warnings that she would not unconditionally support the TPP. In public speeches and in her memoir Hard Choices, Clinton praised the agreement in principle, but always with some reservations. As delicately as she could, given the decorum demanded of someone who was a former member of the sitting administration, she signaled to the Obama White House that her support for the TPP was contingent on the final deal meeting her requirements for trade in the twenty-first century. Foremost among these requirements are that new trade deals should help American workers and not hurt national security.
It was entirely appropriate for Clinton to withhold judgment on the TPP until the final deal was concluded, and she was under no obligation to endorse any final deal simply because she had once hoped for a good one. Clinton's opposition to the TPP is not a flip-flop but a perfectly reasonable stance. In fact, many more Americans may now follow Clinton in concluding, once they see the final details of the TPP, that while they may not be against trade in general, they are certainly against this deal in particular.
The focus on Clinton's alleged reversal is a dodge to deflect our attention from what really matters, which are the problems with the TPP. The American public has yet to see the final negotiated draft, in spite of insistent calls for more transparency from the Obama administration. But nothing reported so far following the conclusion of the negotiations suggests that critics have been wrong to oppose this deal as a corporate grab-bag masquerading under the banner of "free trade."
With more time, Clinton could have been even stronger in confronting Cooper's blunt questions in last night's debate. She could have gone through her evolving views on trade -- not over the last month or year, but over the last decade. She could have noted her disappointment with NAFTA, and her insistence on higher standards for any new trade agreements. She could have explained further how the TPP that was concluded is not what the TPP should have been.
She could have said what John Maynard Keynes famously said when a critic accused him of inconsistency: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" For the real significance of Clinton's opposition to the TPP is not what it suggests about Clinton. It's what it suggests about the TPP.