In early October of 2015, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat for an interview with Judy Woodruff of PBS to discuss a variety of issues that would set the stage for the 2016 presidential election. Chief among them was the newly announced trade agreement between twelve nations across the Asia-Pacific region. The Obama administration had expanded the Economic Partnership Agreement between the region to include the largest economies and encompass over 40% of the global economy. Leading the negotiations for a new “gold standard” for global trade in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, once she departed from the State Department in 2013 and the election crept closer, trade took center stage in the political arena. A wave of populism across both major political parties had resurrected protectionism. After months of avoiding the topic, Sec. Clinton was asked by Woodruff if she would hold her previous position in support of TPP. In what many saw as a political calculation, she appeared to flip-flop and said that she opposed implementation of the trade deal.
At that time, Senator Bernie Sanders had been picking up steam in the Democratic primary. His candidacy, which was originally seen as a fool’s errand, was becoming a legitimate alternate choice to the long-awaited “Ready for Hillary” movement. Significantly to the left of the Secretary, one of his rallying calls was that America had been making bad trade deals that only benefitted corporate interests. He attached this issue to Secretary Clinton by referencing her previous support for other trade agreements and making false claims about their effect on Detroit and towns and cities across America. This framing was part of a strategy to force economic populism into the mainstream media and cast the establishment as the enemy in his fight. He was not alone in this pursuit; the rise of Donald Trump helped move trade and anti-elitist economic policies from the political sidelines. Trump had been criticizing trade, specifically trade deficits, since the late ‘80s. Combined with the ongoing experience of Americans seeing factories leave small towns to move overseas, Trump and Sanders were able to ignite a political backlash against the global economy that seemingly left rural, working class citizens behind.
Despite the cynicism surrounding Clinton’s decision not to support TPP, her reasoning remained fairly sound. She had championed trade deals in the past, but she had also opposed agreements she saw as not in “the best interests of the workers of America.” After the full details of TPP were released, she claimed that the deal didn’t go far enough on currency manipulation and the protection of consumers. Americans should not fault a public servant for wanting to read every detail and understand every aspect before forming a position, however, the issue is not how Hillary Clinton came to her position on the trade agreement, the problem is that it was the wrong position to take.
The Sanders-Trump protectionist agenda ignores the truth surrounding trade and technology in the Rust Belt and across blue collar America. Trade only has a small effect on the manufacturing industry in the economy, while the advancement of technology has been devastating for the sector. Of course, Trump and Sanders were not advocating for stifling the advancement of industries away from low-skilled workers to automation. In this regard, trade acted as a sort of boogeyman for the long-term economic trends that had been exacerbated by the Great Recession. The truth of the matter is that trade greatly benefits the American economy by providing cheap goods, competition, and more markets to sell to. The evidence and economic theory was against the populists, but the election was not about truth; it was about perception.
The perception of corporations using trade to trounce the little guy caught on in Western countries and helped cause a slowdown in global trade. Without a champion of the cause, the dramatic benefits of trade agreements for Americans of all classes and industries were almost completely ignored. In 1993, during the heated battle in the Democratic Party over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), President Bill Clinton stormed the lion’s den to pitch free trade. In union halls and rural towns all across the midwest and the south, the President made the case that the regional trade agreement would benefit manufacturers and all consumers. The agreement passed and the downsides that the protectionists argued NAFTA would cause were overlooked because of the positives that came about with the deal. Trade in the early 1990’s was not a politically popular position for a Democratic president to take, but President Clinton took his argument to those who were going to be most affected and then explained his plans to invest in blue collar jobs. In this election, with Sen. Sanders and Donald Trump making the case for an economy walled off to foreign markets, Sec. Clinton could have led the charge against populist strawmen, contrasted them with her plan to encourage investment in manufacturing and manufacturing communities, and championed global trade as an economic opportunity.
Critics of the proposal that Clinton should have advocated for trade will say that even if the evidence was on her side, it would have only widened the margins of defeat in the Midwest states. Some might see advocating for global trade as a political disaster, even more than a perceived flip-flop on the issue, because of the direct effect these agreements have on the Rust Belt voters. Without a counterargument, we saw trade contribute to her defeat in those states in the Democratic primary and in the general election. However, using Secretary of State Clinton’s own framing, we get a view of how Candidate Clinton could have used trade to cast her opponents as unfit to be Leader of the Free World.
In a Chicago Council survey, conducted in September, over two-thirds of Democrats said that trade “benefits both the overall U.S. economy and their own living standards.” Clinton could have utilized the growing number of Democrats that see themselves as part of the new global economy, to sharpen her message against her protectionist opponent. As a skilled debater with a history of making the case of nuanced arguments, Sec. Clinton could have explained that she, as president, would not try and turn the clock back on the global economy, but instead, try to make it work better for the average American. Many Democrats might have seen this as an unsatisfactory answer, while others may have rallied behind it, but it also could have persuaded the many who believed her position was formed for political expediency.
In the general election, one of Sec. Clinton’s most forceful attacks on her opponent was that he was not up to the job of Commander-in-Chief. During discussions on NATO, cyber attacks, and Russian aggression, Clinton painted her opponent as a puppet of the oppressive regime in the Kremlin. Trump had a history of dealing with the Russian government and wouldn’t accept that seventeen intelligence agencies had come to the conclusion that the foreign country was interfering with the election. A recent CIA report found that the Putin government had backed the Republican nominee throughout the election. It was a forceful, factual argument that helped convince almost two-thirds of Americans that the Republican nominee was unqualified to be in charge of national security.
However, during the discussion on trade, Clinton was far less forceful and even appeared to be on the fence. She began to make the case for why the country needed to trade with other countries, but then pivoted back to protecting American workers. It was diplomatic, but her opponent was able to pin her as the global candidate, saying she would still approve TPP if she won the election, and her explanation faltered under the weight of trying to balance both sides of the argument. Championing trade could help give explanation, but it could have also reversed the attack back on Trump. When asked about TPP, Clinton could have taken the opportunity to explain why it could help, but more importantly it would open the door to a geopolitical attack that could be devastating alongside the anti-Putin argument. She could have argued that in backing-out of TPP, Trump would be leaving the door open to China being able to write the economic rules of the region. In geopolitics, a vacuum doesn’t exist for long, and without America’s involvement another country would fill the void. The one-two punch could have turned Trump’s isolationism against him; Trump was the candidate who wanted America to retreat from the world.
The argument would have been a direct counter to the underlying attack Trump was using against Sec. Clinton which was essentially saying that she was for globalism and he was for Americanism. Trade had become a codeword for globalism along with migration and the free movement of capital. Framing the argument to say that Trump was against the United States playing a major role in world affairs could have made the contrast more clear. Sec. Clinton made the case for the United States as a guide of globalism when one of her rallying calls was “bridges are better than walls.” By abandoning trade, the Secretary made the mistake of wavering on the issue that was perceived as the entire theme of the election.
When asked during the campaign, Sec. Clinton explained that a country with less than 5% of the world’s population could not withhold from trading with the other 95%. She was beginning to make the argument for a country that embraces trade in a global world, but then faltered. Globalization is under attack across the Western world, and Hillary Clinton would have been uniquely qualified to confront those who wanted America to turn inwards and “raise the drawbridge.” For someone whose entire career, from the UN Women’s Rights Conference in Beijing to the War on Terror to confronting cyber warfare as Secretary of State, has been about grappling with the smaller, more connected world we live in, she could have, and should have, laid out her call to action: not to shy away from, but to rise to the challenge of the new flow of technology, capital, migration, and, most importantly, trade, and make them work for the United States and everyone who feels left behind.
One of the emails released by Wikileaks may have, ironically, shown us the true world view of Hillary Clinton as a leader on trade and globalization. “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.” She will not be the president in January of 2017, even though championing trade may have helped her get there, but her vision should live on in this age: a country that sees a more open world not as a threat, but as a way forward.