Fast-Track Retaliation: Back the 2016 Democratic Candidates Who Oppose the TPP

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at one of the #StopFastTrack rallies in the DC metro area, April 2015. (Photo: AFGE)

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With the minimum required 60 votes – including 13 Democratic votes – the US Senate has passed fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other secretive, anti-democratic, pro-corporate, anti-worker, climate-chaos-exacerbating, medicine-price-raising trade agreements.

Naturally, many progressive Democrats will be asking each other, “How can we retaliate against this?”

Many of those conversations will revolve around the 13 Senate Democrats who voted yes, as well as around the House Democrats who voted yes.

But that cannot be the whole story: It leaves out the crucial role of presidential politics. Sooner or later, people will have to acknowledge openly that this isn’t just about individual members of Congress. It’s about Democratic presidential politics. Holding only individual members of Congress accountable for fast track would be like only holding some CIA employee you’ve never heard of accountable for CIA torture. Responsibility justly flows to the top.

This happened, in large measure, because President Obama made it his top priority.

This happened, in large measure, because since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) there is an unwritten rule enforced by the pro-corporate-power wing of the Democratic Party that in order to be the Democratic nominee for president, you have to be a corporate Democrat on trade policy.

Sooner or later, people who want to challenge the outcome will have to challenge the rule that produces the outcome.

Here is the good news: Right now, and for at least the next seven months, there is an unprecedented, world-historical opportunity to challenge the rule.

The Iowa caucus is February 1. The New Hampshire primary is February 9. The seven-month window that we are facing comes around, at best, every four years: a window in which the Democratic nominee for president is not yet determined, a window in which anti-corporate-power presidential candidates may compete, a window in which big media efforts to dismiss opposition to corporate power as irrelevant may be parried with the fact that nobody has voted yet.

Two of the candidates, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, took a clear and consistent stand against fast track. Sanders appears at present to be the more formidable challenger, polling 10 points behind the “front-runner” in New Hampshire. It was never the case in recent memory that the main challenger for the Democratic nomination was an anti-corporate-power candidate. The hotter this contest is in the months ahead, the more it will pressure more congressional Democrats to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

It was also never the case before that the AFL-CIO was officially neutral between Democratic presidential candidates at this point in the process. That creates political space that didn’t exist before. When Congress approved accession of China to the WTO, the AFL-CIO had already endorsed Vice President Al Gore, who supported the China trade deal. Now, individual unions and local labor activists have more room for maneuver. Already, the Vermont AFL-CIO and the South Carolina AFL-CIO have encouraged support of Sanders. (Technically, the state labor federations don’t have the power to “endorse” presidential candidates on their own, but they have the power to make statements and do other things that everybody in the labor movement will know about.)

It was also never the case before that the menu for engagement was as rich as it is today. There’s more than one way to help the insurgency. Some players could help the insurgency in a few early primary and caucus states, to help ensure that there is a vigorous national contest. Some players could do things that are ostensibly neutral but in practice help the insurgency: push for more debates, push for a debate specifically on trade policy, spend resources on voter education and mobilization of constituencies whose participation is likely to help the insurgency. Thanks to the new culture of internet-assisted organizing, more people can do more things to educate and engage more people that don’t involve huge commitments of time and money.

Share your ideas about the rich menu for engagement in the comments.