Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Wednesday came out against a massive 12-nation trade deal, breaking with President Obama and his administration, which has actively promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
While Clinton’s change of heart is cheering to some and dismaying to others, it’s actually not that surprising if you take a closer look. When Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ran for president, they announced that they were skeptical of free trade agreements. Bernie Sanders, who is running ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and opposed the TPP early on, has said his opponent should have opposed the agreement well before the deal was struck.
All this might suggest that Democrats are against free trade, but the story is more complex than that. There is more support for free trade agreements (FTAs) among Democrats than among Republicans. Democrats support FTA’s by 58%, while Republicans support FTAs by 53%, according to the Pew Research Center, which polled 2,002 adults in May 2015.
Ironically enough, in Congress, the split is the reverse – by a wide margin, more Republican members favor free trade agreements than Democratic members. What this suggests is that our elected representatives in Congress are not reflecting the sentiments of the American people. Indeed, just a few months ago, the vote for trade agreement authority passed by a narrow margin, with far more Republicans voting for it than Democrats. You might think that an outsider running as a Democrat against Washington would therefore be running in order to swing more Democrats into the free trade agreement column. That of course is not the case.
Going back to Hillary Clinton, PBS reported that Clinton cited concerns about “currency manipulation not being part of the agreement.” Her concerns are certainly valid since cheaper currencies tend to make a country’s exports significantly more competitive, and are a drag on its imports.
In fact, only finance ministers and treasury secretaries, not trade negotiators, can deal with currency issues in international agreements. Governments around the world are set up that way. Finance ministers and the U.S. Secretary of Treasury have dealt with misalignments of currency in historic agreements before – in the Smithsonian Agreement in 1971, and in the Plaza Accord in 1985.
In the TPP, there is currently no currency manipulation provision, although the U.S. has reportedly proposed that the deal be accompanied by a separate agreement signed by the 12 nations’ finance ministers to consult on currency issues.
Ultimately, the TPP needs to be judged by what is in it, not what is not. After all, like every trade deal, it cannot satisfy all concerns. Once the TPP text becomes available, those interested can examine it closely, and decide whether it is better than the alternative.
Alan Wolff is a former U.S. Deputy Trade Representative and practices international trade law in Washington DC. The views expressed are his own.