The rebellion of House Democrats that blocked the president’s trade deal with Asia is more than a political humiliation for Barack Obama. The 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 Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) fiasco will be remembered as the start of something far bigger—the revival of the Democratic Party as a born-again advocate for working people and economic justice.
After 25 years of losing out to Wall Street and corporate interests, the party’s faithful base managed to take down its own president’s sweetheart deal with 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, when 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 influential thinkers for investor-friendly economic policy. He did little to reverse the damage caused by the sector, proposing instead 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 the TPP. He ignored them. Even worse, he got a little nasty with those resisting his proposal, 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. The TPP looked to some like an opportunity for payback.
When members of Congress tried to explain this to him, Obama responded by personalizing the political question. I am your president. A vote for the TPP is a vote for me. Stick to the regular order of things, he told them. The dismissive put-down simply deepened the anger. Forced to choose between him and their angry constituents, they chose their constituents.
A different sort of political leader might swallow his pride and start a serious conversation with his opponents. Is there a deal to be made that would cut out some of the more odious corporate plums in the TPP in order to get something that labor-liberal critics might accept? Labor officials are ready to talk, but doubt Obama will listen.
As for Hillary Clinton, her prospects as Democratic candidate for president are now directly threatened by the party’s growing divide. The moneyed interests remain in charge of the party, and Clinton has tried not to choose sides. That doesn’t sound like a strategy that can survive until November 2016.
Beyond presidential politics, something even more profound may now be unfolding. The rank and file of both parties are fed up with establishment leaders and eager to challenge them. On the Democratic left, the spirit of reform is resurgent, with politicians and advocates advancing strong new ideas for confronting inequality. Indeed, we may be witnessing the initial stages in the breakdown of the imperial presidency. For two generations, both parties and both houses of Congress mostly went along with this debasement of the governing order, letting the White House make the big decisions and take the blame if things went wrong. The country, however, has now reached a point where imperial decision-making no longer works for the common good.
The politics that follow will be chaotic, for sure. Established powers will feel threatened and try to derail these popular rebellions. Yet this turmoil has the potential to liberate the democratic order from corporate influences and persuade angry, anxious people to seek political power and act again like citizens.