There will be no breathless stories about how left-wing extremists and obstructionists have hijacked the Democratic Party. No hand-wringing about the state of American politics now that congress has defied the will of the first black president. There will be no scary pieces on how a stubborn minority party is holding up bills that have proven to create jobs – both here and abroad. There’ll be no passionate speeches about the dangers of big-money interests buying democracy.
Remember these aren’t your parents’ Democrats. And when Democrats rebelled against Obama’s bipartisan trade initiative this week and voted to stop debate on a fast-track bill, we learned that the Senate is now run by Elizabeth Warren, who is not your average liberal.
Obama is correct. Warren’s arguments on trade don’t stand up to scrutiny. But they also stand well outside the traditional Democratic Party stance on free trade. According to a recent Wall Street Journal poll (though, admittedly, these polls often have as much to do with who is president as they do with strongly held ideological positions) Democrats are less likely today to be averse to trade than Republicans. Asked whether free trade between the U.S. and foreign countries helped or hurt the country, only 26 percent of Democrats said it has hurt, but 36 percent of Republicans — and 44 percent of Tea Partiers — believe trade has hurt the U.S.
So perhaps our future is anti-trade. But at this point, it’s far-fetched, to say the least, to believe that Warren or Sherrod Brown rallied their party to shut down the TPP because of a profound concern about transparency or executive abuse. When it comes to climate change, for example, the administration functions without any congressional oversight as it implements legislation by fiat–not to mention a possible international deal–yet the duo is not only quiet, but supportive of the effort. When it comes to the Export-Import Bank, cronyism and a lack of transparency don’t stop the duo from supporting it. The reason there is no deal on trade is that Warren, like many progressives, is a protectionist. And now Senate Democrats are also protectionists.
The White House wants the authority to negotiate with Asia-Pacific nations — 11 of them — without having to share every detail before a deal is reached. This is how international treaties have been crafted for decades. This is how the Iranian deal, the one that Democrats are so supportive of, is being put together. And though unions and their allies in D.C. continue to make the absurd claim that TPP is being forged in some unprecedented secrecy, the Senate would have 60 days to read the deal (or not read it) and vote up or down after it was finalized. Did Republicans have 60 days to read over Obamacare before the vote?
Mitch McConnell, who is always being reminded that he made it his mission to make Obama a one-termer, conceded a separate Trade Adjustment Assistance bill that would subsidize U.S. workers who might be harmed by temporary of loosening of trade barriers. That wasn’t enough. Ron Wyden, who only a day earlier tweeted out his support for the TPP bill, claimed that Obama’s fast-track bill on its own wouldn’t do enough to stop slavery abroad. As my colleague Sean Davis pointed out, where is the similar concern for the downtrodden when it comes to the Iranian nuke deal that Democrats want to fast track?
No legislation is ever perfect; there has to be compromise. This is what we were incessantly lectured about when the GOP would not submit to supporting legislation that offered them virtually nothing. So who’ll be the first MSNBC host to call Democrats a bunch of nihilists? This trade bill is Obama’s priority, his centerpiece, after all.
And the day’s drama culminated with Brown, perhaps the most antagonistic lawmaker on the issue of free trade outside of Warren, accusing the president of sexism, which is more or less how every debate ends these days when one side runs out of arguments.
It is the Democrats’ prerogative to stop bills through procedural means, just as Republicans did. In some ways, it’s heartening to see them finally standing up to the president. It’s the responsibility of Congress to be a counterbalance to executive power, even, as in this case, if it’s misplaced. Obviously there are layers of complex policy here that are worthy of debate. But today’s events do reconfirm two things: 1) Democrats are no less ideologically driven or stubborn than their counterparts, and 2) Hillary Clinton is going to wait to see which side wins before chiming in.
Harry Reid doesn’t have the will or the charisma to rally grassroots and political support to stop the president. Nor does Patty Murray or Chuck Schumer or Sherrod Brown, or anyone else. But Elizabeth Warren does.
Image by Tim Pierce / Flickr.