The rebellion of House Democrats that blocked the president’s trade deal with Asia is more than political humiliation for Barack Obama. It is the start of something far bigger—the revival of the Democratic Party as a born-again advocate for working people and economic justice.
The congressional defeat shocked Washington, where the cynical rule is “to get along, you go along.” Even though the Obama-Boehner-McConnell forces are attempting to resuscitate the “fast track” gimmick, the TPP fiasco will be remembered as a fundamental turn in the road.
After 25 years of losing out to Wall Street and corporate interests, the party’s faithful constituency base managed to take down their Democratic president and his sweetheart deal with the big money. The left-liberal policy groups and grassroots activists agitating for change stood their ground against the power elites and, for once, they triumphed.
This may be premature, but I suggest the fast-changing dynamics may be springtime for the New New Democrats on the party’s left. Led by organized labor and AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka, this informal coalition includes environmentalists, social-justice advocates, people of color, defenders of civil liberties, small businesses, and others who are also regularly ignored or injured by the party’s dominant power brokers.
Disregard for the party faithful began with Bill Clinton back in 1992. Labor was edged aside. Wall Street replaced it as the senior managing partner of the Democratic coalition. Clinton ran on “Putting People First,” but he governed according to the needs of big business and finance. His permissive policies on so-called “free-trade” globalization were especially damaging to American workers and middle-class prosperity.
Barack Obama comfortably embraced that relationship with Wall Street and relied on its best thinkers for investor-friendly economic policy. He did nothing much to reverse the damage caused by the sector, but instead has proposed more concessions to the needs of finance capital.
Lots of people in the party warned Obama that he was heading into a buzz saw with his Trans-Pacific Partnership. He ignored them. Even worse, he got a little nasty with those resisting his proposal—leading voices like Senator Elizabeth Warren. Surrounded by advisers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, he scolded labor leaders for fighting the last war.
Whether in ignorance or arrogance, the president didn’t seem to realize that his smooth reassurances were actually inflaming grassroots anger. People knew what happened to them when their factories were closed and the jobs moved to low-wage workers abroad. And people have not forgotten the role of the Democratic party in messing up their lives. TPP looked to some like an opportunity for payback.