There were many reasons for the failure of the proposed Asia-Pacific trade bill in the Senate this week, enough of them fixable to hold out hope that another vote could push it through. Indeed, such a deal appears to be in the works already.
Still, it was a strange sight when every Democrat but one voted against the bill ardently sought by President Obama, thereby depriving the measure of the 60 votes that almost every piece of legislation seems to need in the Senate these days. Democrats who have complained bitterly about Republican abuse of the filibuster turned to it themselves to defeat a bill that, in a normal world, would have passed the 100-member Senate with its 52-45 vote in support.
But these aren’t normal times. Yes, it’s normal for Democrats to squabble among themselves, but unusual for them to mount such unanimous opposition to a primary goal of a president of their own party – and a goal well worth pursuing, at that.
Trade agreements are always a matter of balance. They can cause some disruptions at home, but a fair deal can expand the economy in ways that benefit multiple partners. Good trade agreements bolster the causes of prosperity and peace and set the stage for long-term gains. The goal should always have been to find a way to pass this bill and the suddenly revived prospects of its approval suggest there was always a way. The politics needed to play out first.
Some of this was Obama’s own fault. He has been notoriously uninterested in the fundamental task of cultivating relationships in Congress – with Republicans or Democrats. That made it easy for Democrats to play to the union base that fears trade agreements.
What is remarkable is how quickly Democrats started reversing themselves. After separating out a vote dealing largely with enforcement issues, including China’s policy of currency manipulation – a practice that deserves attention, to be sure – 13 Democratic senators joined Republicans in a procedural vote to revive the legislation.
There was a time when the United States could afford to be insular, but that time is long past. We can’t even pretend anymore. It is a cliche to say that the world is getting smaller, but when you can communicate electronically around the world for the cost of Internet service, it should be plain that interconnectedness is a fact of the 21st century, and it has economic ramifications. That may be good, bad, neutral or some combination of the three, but it’s true. It is important for this country to make the most of it.
Fast-track authority has been granted to every president since Franklin Roosevelt and, it is important to note, it does not cut Congress out of the loop. What it does is allow the president authority to negotiate a deal and then to present it to Congress for an up-or-down vote, with no amendments allowed. First on the list is expected to be the Trans-Pacific Partnership, intended to promote trade and investment among the partner nations, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Vietnam and others.
This is a populist moment in American politics. That makes it easy – and often enough appropriate – to play to the issue of income inequality. Many people are being left behind as the economy recovers and many may not directly benefit from approving fast-track. But expanded trade is the way of the future and Democrats should muster the good sense to clear the way that leads there.