The paperback edition of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir came out this week. Its author may want to take a second look at the title: “Hard Choices.”
That’s because she ought to make one.
The hottest debate in Washington right now—and probably one of the country’s most substantive policy discussions between now and 2016—involves free trade. Hillary Clinton should let people know where she stands, not only because presidential candidates have a basic obligation to describe their views to voters but also because this is a duty of leadership.
Campaigning in New Hampshire last week, she evaded questions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). The first is a proposed agreement with 11 other nations that would increase export opportunities for American farmers, manufacturers, and service providers. The second is a legislative tool that would allow Congress, when it considers TPP, to cast an up-or-down vote.
President Obama supports both TPP and TPA. Many other Democrats oppose him. Asked to proclaim her own position, Clinton mustered only the sort of statement that seems calculated to evade a hard choice: “Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security,” she said.
Who could disagree with that?
Trade divides Democrats. Although some support it strongly, key constituencies, such as Big Labor, embrace the protectionism that benefits special interests at the expense of the nation’s broader economic interests.
You can almost hear the whispers of Hillary’s political advisors as they urge her to utter cautious, content-free platitudes.
Yet they may misunderstand the optimism of both Americans in general and Democrats in particular.
A new Gallup poll reveals that 58 percent of Americans see foreign trade as an “opportunity” and only 33 percent regard it as a “threat.” Just a few years ago, the reverse was true: People considered trade more of a threat than an opportunity.
Curiously, 61 percent of Democrats and independents view trade as an opportunity, versus just 51 percent of Republicans. For years, Democrats had been more pessimistic than Republicans about trade. Something has changed, at least for the time being.
Perhaps Democrats have come to recognize an important fact: Among the 20 countries that have signed trade agreements with the United States, American manufacturers run a trade surplus of $50 billion. Among the rest, they run a deficit of $500 billion.
The lesson is obvious: We need more trade agreements, such as TPP.
Hillary’s husband was a leader on free trade. As president in the 1990s, Bill Clinton helped secure the North American Free Trade Agreement. He did it by working with open-minded Republicans and fighting the protectionists in his own party.
Here in farm and ranch country, it may be the most popular thing he ever did.
I’m tempted to say that Hillary should follow in the footsteps of her husband. But as any good farm wife knows, husbands aren’t always right. We need to think for ourselves.
Thankfully, Hillary already has done this: She has built her own record in support of free trade.
As Secretary of State, she flew to Australia two-and-a-half years ago and talked up “jobs diplomacy” in the port city of Adelaide.
“We need to keep upping our game both bilaterally and with partners across the region through agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” she said. “This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open, free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”
In “Hard Choices,” she sounded similar themes: “The TPP became the signature economic pillar of our strategy in Asia, demonstrating the benefits of a rules-based order and greater cooperation with the United States.”
Why couldn’t she have said something similar in New Hampshire?
Her refusal to continue speaking in favor of free trade makes her vulnerable to the charge of having performed a “politically motivated flip flop,” as Jeb Bush quickly labeled it last week.
There’s still plenty of time for Hillary to clarify her views on free trade. She could put out a clear statement that cites economic realities and reiterates what she already has said.
It turns out that some hard choices aren’t so hard after all.
Hope Pjesky and her family are farmers / ranchers in northern Oklahoma where they raise cattle and wheat. Hope volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).