And now it’s time for the Democrats’ civil war to take center stage. On Friday, the House will vote on fast-track authority for the looming Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. If the fast-track vote passes it would in essence mean that Congress couldn’t tinker with the substance of the deal the administration has negotiated. The TPP itself will come up for a vote later.
On the surface of course the debate is about whether the TPP will increase or decrease American jobs. But the civil war is about something deeper. It’s about the degree to which groups that have spent the last couple of generations feeling pretty powerless in American politics—labor and liberals—feel they can believe the assurances of people who know very well that they (labor and liberals) have lost power. Think about it; if you’re involved in a negotiation and you don’t have real leverage and another person is assuring you “don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” why would you believe them, especially when, in the only other comparable high-stakes situation, that person’s predecessor did not (I mean Bill Clinton on NAFTA)?
Actually, there are two reasons to believe this time, which are 1) that Barack Obama actually cares more about labor and environmental standards than Bill Clinton did, and 2) that two decades’ worth of agitating about NAFTA’s lack of standards have convinced Democrats across the board that they’re necessary. I think both of these things are largely true, and so there is much evidence to support the Obama administration’s claims that this deal really will be different from NAFTA.
But many liberal Democrats simply refuse to believe a word of it. Their skepticism is given weight by virtue of the fact that the debate is wholly prospective, because it’s all about what would happen under a TPP regime that right now exists only in theory. And because it exists only in theory, the skeptics, even though they may be in denial about the ways in which this deal can be better than NAFTA, still might end up being right about some aspects of a pact that will unquestionably be difficult to enforce—especially in the event that America someday elects a president who doesn’t care about the labor and environmental standards to begin with.
Let’s start with some differences between TPP and NAFTA. Here is a White House blog post from April spelling out (in not very great detail, it must be said) the key differences. According to the White House, the TPP has these features that NAFTA lacked, among several others: a ban on child and forced labor (a big deal in some Pacific Rim countries); requirement for a minimum wage; a ban on workplace discrimination; insistence on the rights of workers in all TPP countries to organize; and the imposition of trade sanctions for violations of worker rights. Relatedly, proponents also say that the TPP has real enforcement mechanisms, with teeth, that no other trade deal, NAFTA or CAFTA or anything else, has had.
Then—and this aspect of the deal hasn’t gotten much broad attention at all—there are the environmental chapters. In early 2014, a draft version of environmental passages of the pact got out via Wikileaks. Most environmental groups didn’t like what they saw. But apparently some language has been toughened up since then, and now several environmental groups are more sympathetic to the pact because of administration commitments that would protect ocean species from overfishing, combat illegal wildlife trafficking and logging, and, again, impose trade sanctions on state violators.
By this year, back in March, leaders of groups like the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Humane Society, and others were speaking more positively of the TPP. If you read their statements, you see that they don’t exactly say “Yay, We Love the TPP!”, but they are more supportive than not—again, only prospectively.
This, from Priscilla Ma of World Animal Protection International, is representative: “We think the TPP environment chapter is headed in the right direction, and if the Administration can deliver on its commitment to use TPP to spur greater international action to combat wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and fishing, and eliminate some of the most harmful fisheries subsidies—and hold countries accountable through a binding dispute settlement mechanism—it will be an important step forward on environmental protection.”
I spoke with Vanessa Dick, the deputy director of U.S. government relations for the WWF. She told me the WWF has taken no official position, given that there’s no final language yet. But, she said, “We see the potential for conservation gains in the environmental chapters.” A paper issued by the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which is negotiating the deal with the other countries, listed prohibitions on trade in illegally harvested resources like timber, seafood, and wildlife (e.g. ivory and rhino horns); also, prohibitions on subsidies that nations use to support unsustainable fishing. So it all looks good on paper. “The big condition,” Dick says, “is the whole question of ambition and that the language be binding.”
Overfishing is a huge problem in the world, and the 12 TPP nations account for about a third of the global marine catch. In the United States, imports account for nearly 90 percent of the fish consumed. So these are consequential matters. At the same time, other environmental groups that look beyond these issues tend to take a more skeptical view of the TPP, the Sierra Club being a notable example.
As to the jobs question, who knows. It will probably hurt in some places and help in others. It will harm manufacturing, but it will likely provide a lift to export-related job categories. And as Ron Brownstein points out in The National Journal, most Democrats in Congress these days represent districts in the major cities that generate a large number of export-related jobs. And he notes that most blue-collar workers, at least the white ones, vote Republican these days. And yet many Democrats are loathe to concede, to Republicans or to themselves, that their party is less the party of the working man than it used to be. (Even pro-free-trade, it’s still a lot more the party of the working person than the GOP is ever likely to be.)
So this is existential for Democrats in a way it just isn’t for most Republicans. The civil war metaphor can be overused. In fact, aside from trade, and to a lesser extent entitlements, the Democratic Party of today is probably more unified than at any point in my adult lifetime. No more big culture-issue divisions, for starters, and now that Larry Summers is talking populism, no huge differences on domestic economics. On foreign policy there are some bumps, but they don’t compare to the GOP’s (represented by Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham). On trade, though, the metaphor is apt. And since globalization isn’t stopping any time soon, neither will the civil war.