“The majority of Democrats, like the majority of Americans, are against the TPP. Hillary is against the TPP. Bernie is against the TPP. Let’s not be bureaucrats, let’s be leaders,” declared former NAACP president Ben Jealous as he urged the Democratic Party’s platform committee to amend the document to include specific opposition to the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
But despite the fact that the party’s presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, and her chief rival for the nomination, Bernie Sanders, have expressed explicit opposition to the deal, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of congressional Democrats oppose it, despite the fact that Democratic and Republican primary results suggest that is a big issue for 2016 voters, the bureaucratic approach prevailed. The platform’s language was strengthened to express general opposition to trade policies that have stirred fervent opposition in industrialized states such as Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin. But proposals to add anti-TPP language to the document were rejected Saturday at the platform committee session in Orlando, as Clinton backers (and most uncommitted members of the committee) generally opposed the amendments, while Sanders backers supported them.
Votes on TPP amendments were among the most contentious during the two-day session that significantly reworked a draft document before recommending a more detailed platform for consideration at the 2016 party convention in Philadelphia. The Orlando session saw a good deal of cooperation on issues raised by the Sanders insurgency and mass movements that have sought to move the debate to the left. There were votes to include more explicit support of criminal-justice reform, to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, to crack down on monopolies and to tax the rich in order to “protect the earned pension benefits of Americans in multi-employer pension plans.”
One of the most significant amendment votes added to the platform explicit support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The initial committee session on Friday night saw former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, a key Sanders supporter, and Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry, a key Clinton backer, cooperating to add language declaring that “We should raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over time and index it, give all Americans the ability to join a union regardless of where they work, and create new ways for workers to have power in the economy so every worker can earn at least $15 an hour.”
But the cooperation did not extend to the trade debate, which has historically divided Democratic presidents (including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and grassroots activists. Saturday’s contentious consideration of a series of amendment proposals began with a key Clinton backer, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders, acknowledging that, of all the platform issues being considered, trade policy could well be “the subject to which ordinary Americans are paying the closest attention.” Saunders offered an amendment to add strong language declaring that trade agreements “must not undermine democratic decision making through special privileges and private courts for corporations, and trade negotiations must be transparent and inclusive. Democrats’ priority is to significantly strengthen enforcement of existing trade rules and strengthen the tools we have, including by holding countries accountable on currency manipulation and significantly expanding enforcement resources.” Outlining labor, environment and currency manipulation standards, and calling for “streamlined and effective enforcement mechanisms” that “protect workers and the environment,” the amendment insisted that “These are standards all Democrats believe should be applied to all trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
“We take what Trump has used as a soundbite, and we turn it into a standard,” declared American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Several labor representatives speaking in Orlando highlighted the importance of the standards, which proponents said could be applied to the TPP in this and future congresses. The Saunders amendment drew strong backing from the Clinton camp and some support from Sanders representatives on the committee, winning by a 117-64 vote. A statement from AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka described the amended language as “a major milestone,” but added that “the threat of unfair agreements, including TPP remains. We will continue to point out TPP’s fundamental flaws and mobilize to defeat it, and any trade deals that don’t work for working people.”
Sanders backers (including members of National Nurses United and other unions) argued that the threat needed to be addressed in the platform—with a formal declaration of opposition. The failure to explicitly reject the TPP, they argued, would be used by Trump and his allies in their appeals to working-class voters in states that have been hit hard by deindustrialization and the offshoring of jobs. This is a concern that Sanders and others have raised since the United Kingdom voted in June to exit the European Union, following a campaign that saw right-wing forces exploit economic fears to their advantage. “In this pivotal moment, the Democratic Party and a new Democratic president need to make clear that we stand with those who are struggling and who have been left behind,” Sanders has argued. “We must create national and global economies that work for all, and not a handful of billionaires.”
TPP critics such as Carli Stevenson, a Sanders supporter from Indiana, put their call in practical terms. “We all have to go home tomorrow and face our neighbors and tell them what we did to protect their jobs,” explained Stevenson. “The best way to do that, and to leave no doubt, is to say that the Democratic Party opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
Jealous offered an amendment to the amendment. “I just want to add the words: ‘That’s why we oppose the TPP.’”
“We need to leave no doubt that Democrats stand up for working men and women in this country,” declared Turner, when she spoke for the Jealous amendment. “Leave no doubt that we are against the TPP.”
Sanders backers chanted, “Leave no doubt!”
But the Jealous amendment lost on a 106-74 vote.
At that point, Texas populist Jim Hightower offered a more detailed Sanders-backed amendment that sought to put the party on record in opposition to the TPP—which he decried as “a corporate-empowerment deal”—in the current and future congresses. Arguing that working families in swing states will not be satisfied by “soft words,” Hightower said, “Using lame language tells them we will not stand with them.”
Hightower noted that Trump has made it clear that he will campaign against the TPP and the failed trade agreements of the past in Ohio, North Carolina, and other swing states, and warned, “He is going to hammer Hillary mercilessly on…wimpy language in her platform.” Hightower’s message did not prevail, as his amendment was defeated 104-71.
Sanders supporters—some of whom spoke of raising the TPP issue at the party convention in Philadelphia by filing a “minority report” that would force a floor debate—were frustrated. That frustration was rooted in concerns about both policy and practical politics.
Explaining that Trump “intends to run clearly against the TPP,” Jealous said it was vital to give grassroots Democratic campaigners and candidates across the country a tool for winning economic debates: “We must empower them to say, clearly: the Democratic Party, through its platform, is on record as being opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”