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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Populist ‘Capture’ of Democratic Party Overstated?

I’m not sure if Dana Milbank got caught up in the frenzy of a spirited rally or if he got it right in his WaPo column “The Populist Capture of the Democratic Party.” Headline writers often overstate the content of the copy that follows. Yet, Milbank’s report on the pending “Trans-Pacific Partnership” trade agreement almost matches the dramatic announcement in the title:

A quartet of senators and a dozen members of the House took the stage in a park across from the Capitol midday Wednesday to join hundreds of steelworkers, union faithful and environmentalists in denouncing President Obama’s bid for fast-track approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
“I’ve never seen a trade agreement that is more secretive than this one,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told the crowd. “What are they hiding? What they’re hiding is a huge shift from democratically elected governments to corporations all over the world, and that’s why we’re fighting.”

A parade of speakers echoed Brown’s denunciation, and Milbank reports that “The upcoming battle over fast-tracking and the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows how dramatically the center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted.” He adds that “a best-case scenario has them winning only 10 of the 46 Democrats — and an even smaller percentage of House Democrats, despite aggressive lobbying by the usually passive White House.”
Milbank cites the bad taste residue left by NAFTA and the shrinking number of political moderates remaining the the Democratic Party, along with the rallying of populist ideas in concert with the ascendancy of Elizabeth Warren. He believes Hillary Clinton will have to accommodate some populist concerns to unite the party, if she wins the presidential nomination for 2016. Many observers believe the agreement will pass, nonetheless, owing mostly to Republican support.
Politico hyped up the “Democrats’ civil war over free trade” in a post by Adam Behsudi, noting:

The open warring among Democrats over fast-track trade legislation, and the party’s broader existential crisis on free trade, grew more pronounced Thursday as senior lawmakers announced a breakthrough on the trade bill. Many Democrats still feel the burn, 20 years later, of lost manufacturing jobs from the North American Free Trade Agreement — pushed through by former President Bill Clinton — and they fear another Democratic president is on the verge of turning his back on working-class Americans by negotiating a trade deal that would send jobs overseas.

Let’s not forget that the followers of both former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin and the populist Democrats of the 90s voted for Bill Clinton on election day decades ago. Further, what gets overlooked amid all of the “let’s you and him fight” reportage about the trade deal is that, if we had a Republican majorities in the House and Senate that would actually negotiate in good faith, it would be possible to forge a trade deal that everyone could live with. But it would have to accommodate the concerns of Democratic leaders, such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who is quoted in Behsudi’s article:

“The single biggest economic issue facing American families is that jobs do not pay enough to live on,” she said following the Trade Promotion Authority bill’s introduction on Thursday. “Fast tracking the TPP would make it easier for corporations to offshore Americans jobs and force our workers to compete with those in Vietnam making less than 60 cents an hour.”

It’s clear that Clinton, or any other potential Democratic presidential candidate will have to take a stronger stand against trade agreements that sacrifice American jobs. That’s a message point that will likely resonate with swing voters.

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