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Clinton Tries to Surf Tide She Can't Block

Walter Russell Mead

The Democratic frontrunner announced yesterday that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade agreement with Asian countries that she played a major role in promoting when she was Secretary of State. Clinton’s announcement, which could make it more difficult for the Obama administration to get TPP get through Congress, is widely seen as an effort by Clinton to insulate herself against attacks from Bernie Sanders, who has long opposed the agreement, and distinguish herself from Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering a presidential run. More, via PBS:

Just days after the U.S. and 11 nations released a monumental trade deal that still faces a fight in Congress, Hillary Clinton says she does not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Speaking with Judy Woodruff Wednesday, the Democratic presidential candidate said that as of today, given what she knows of the deal, it does not meet her bar for creating jobs, raising wages for Americans and advancing national security.

Speaking at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, as part of a two-day swing through the leadoff caucus state, Clinton said that she’s worried “about currency manipulation not being part of the agreement” and that “pharmaceutical companies may have gotten more benefits and patients fewer.”

“As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it,” Clinton said, later adding, “I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.”

One of Hillary Clinton’s biggest problems, now as in 2008, is how far left the Democrats have moved since her husband’s time in office. The centerpiece accomplishments of the Clinton administration—forceful U.S. world leadership, welfare reform, fiscal balance, tough crime laws, the defense of heterosexual marriage, don’t ask don’t tell, close political links with Israel, and the end of the era of the big government—are now all despised as evil Republican ideas by a party that has repudiated much of its post WWII legacy.

Secretary Clinton has had to run to keep up, and nobody was happier to make her look old and conservative than then-Senator Obama during the 2008 primary campaign. Over and over he outflanked her from the left, with new and more evolved positions.

But now Secretary Clinton has found an issue where she can evolve faster than President Obama: trade. He is committed to the TPP, a deal which is deeply Clintonian. The TPP promotes free trade and it is an exercise in American leadership. It is also, despite some ugly crony flaws, an exercise in economic liberalization and pro-capitalist policy. But unfettered from office, Hillary can turn against a very Clintonian agreement she once supported, driving a wedge between Biden, should he run, and the unions and leftist groups whose importance in Democratic politics has grown.

This may not be the end of the story. American politicians excel at throwing chum to the base while running for office, without feeling in any way bound by their rhetoric when it comes to actual governing. A President Hillary Clinton could throw interest groups under the bus with the best of them, and few people in the U.S. understand the importance of TPP to U.S. Asia policy as well as she does. Her new opposition to the deal, then, is less a predictor of what she will do in office than an expression of the political calculations she and her campaign has made. The Democratic Party is running left, and presidential candidates need to run fast enough to stay at the head of the parade.

Whether the country as a whole is running this far left is another question. In 1972, the Democratic left triumphantly selected George McGovern and then lost 49 states, and that’s a historical parallel that bears watching here. Mrs. Clinton knows that history, too—and will try to keep the Democrats from jumping off the cliff even as she does what she thinks she must to position herself as a candidate the left can live with today.

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