Free-trade boosters can breathe a sigh of relief after the Ohio presidential primary. A little one, anyway.
Buckeye State voters in both parties delivered wins to trade-friendly candidates on Tuesday—and denied them to a pair who staked their claims on pledges to oppose new deals, starting with the Trans Pacific Partnership. That outcome was in doubt after Ohio’s neighbors to the north in Michigan last week voted for reality-show billionaire Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the most aggressive trade foes in the field.
But in Ohio, Hillary Clinton and home-state Gov. John Kasich prevailed. Clinton has moved to close the distance with Sanders on trade, talking up her opposition to the TPP and the folly of past deals, like NAFTA. But she’s undoubtedly more of an internationalist than her rival to the left, having helped initiate the TPP negotiations when she served as President Obama’s Secretary of State. And Kasich has been an even more unabashed trade supporter, continuing to embrace the TPP, though he’s sprinkled his rhetoric on the stump with calls for “fair trade,” in a nod to the newly protectionist energy among Republican voters. Trump, on the other hand, has savaged the TPP as “insanity” and a “disaster,” and maligned Kasich for his support of it.
The anti-trade animus in both parties’ bases has already put U.S. approval of the TPP on the skids. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in December he wouldn’t put the package up for a vote until after the November elections, an acknowledgment that the populist anger stirred by the presidential campaign made a Congressional thumbs-up unlikely.
But while the decimation of Michigan’s manufacturing base during the recession made the state fertile ground for the hostility to new pacts that Trump and Sanders were offering, Ohio proved trickier. The state bounced back faster and stronger from the downturn, thanks to an economy that moved away from its traditional reliance on manufacturing. And conspicuous international investment there have made protectionist appeals a tougher sell.
Kasich, of course, had a major home-field advantage. The entirety of the state’s Republican machine was deployed to help protect his perfect electoral record in the state — by delivering his first win of the Republican primary so far. He still trails Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the delegate count, and Rubio dropped out of the race on Tuesday evening.
So the Ohio results hardly spell a newly clear path for the TPP. But the alternative would have signaled a deeper popular opposition that would have made approval — at the end of the year or beyond — an even steeper climb.