Hillary Clinton Is Taking Sides in Obama's Trade Fight With Liberal Democrats

AP

In politics, there is a distinct difference between responding to a question and actually answering it. Reporters have for weeks been asking Hillary Clinton's campaign whether she supports giving President Barack Obama the power to unilaterally negotiate a controversial trade deal currently pitting the White House against liberal Democratic leaders in Congress. For weeks, Clinton and her team seem to have done everything in their power to avoid giving a serious answer.

On Sunday in Iowa, that changed.

Speaking to a crowd of supporters in Des Moines, then in separate interviews with the Des Moines Register and Radio Iowa, Clinton broke from Obama and urged the administration to both partner with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and use the opposition in her caucus as leverage to negotiate a more labor-friendly version of the pending 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"I think what Nancy Pelosi said on the floor when she voted to essentially stop it is the right approach to take," Clinton told the Register. 

Following an afternoon rally, Clinton went into greater detail, telling Radio Iowa that Obama should "go back to the other countries and say: 'You want a lot out of this. I need more. Our market is still the biggest, most consumer friendly in the world, but I can't go forward unless I get X, Y and Z from you.'"

Source: Pool/Getty Images
Source: Pool/Getty Images

"Convince people who are convincible ... that you have answered some of the legitimate questions that have been raised," she said.

Clinton was just as blunt during her live remarks, according to MSNBC, saying Obama "should listen to and work with his allies in Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi, who has expressed concern about the impact a trade agreement could have on our workers, to make sure we get the best deal possible. 

"And if we don't get it, there should be no deal."

Why it matters: While this might seem pretty cut-and-dry, Clinton's critics continue to assert that she is vacillating. But here's the thing: Clinton is not running for a seat in Congress. If she was, it would make sense for voters and journalists to demand an immediate, real-time answer on whether she would vote to give the president "fast-track" authority. That bit of legislation, also called Trade Provisional Authority, provides the White House with the autonomy to negotiate the trade agreement and present it to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote without amendments.

But Clinton is running for president. With her comments Sunday, Clinton simply articulated what she would do if elected to the office she is campaigning to win. (Though it would be reasonable to assume, given her explicit backing of Pelosi's tactics, that she would have voted with the liberal detractors.)

Source: Charlie Neibergall/AP
Source: Charlie Neibergall/AP

If we can't accept that level of nuance, then it is the line of questioning, not Clinton's answers, that begins to seem disingenuous or cynical. There are plenty of reasons to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership on its face. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is a vocal opponent of free trade expansion, stating his very reasonable worries that these agreements tend to favor multinational corporations at the expense of American workers.

You might agree with Sanders. There is a lot of evidence showing that the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1993 after being granted an extension to his "fast-track" authorities, was a disaster for the U.S. middle class. But the TPP is a new deal. Obama calls it the "most progressive trade agreement in our nation's history." Is he being truthful? The administration's decision to keep the details hidden from the public is a good reason to be skeptical.

Either way, Clinton has planted her flag. As she said later during her talk with Radio Iowa, "I'm going to set forth what I believe, what I think will work ... and then people will make their own decisions." 

Fair enough.