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A Failure As a Salesman: The trade treaty may pass, no thanks to the president

Fred Barnes

By Fred Barnes

Published May 19, 2015

 A Failure As a Salesman: The trade treaty may pass, no thanks to the president Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek.

There was a time when Democrats were free traders and getting trade treaties through Congress was a snap. No more. In the last quarter-century—with most Democrats having slipped into the protectionist camp—winning ratification has become difficult. Today it takes a majority of Republicans to pass a trade pact.

That is particularly true with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the treaty being negotiated by the Obama administration that aims to cut tariffs and open markets with 11 countries in Asia and South America. At the moment, it has a slightly better than 50-50 chance of being enacted.

Here are a few of the important players in the battle over TPP and the "fast track" legislation, known as Trade Promotion Authority, that will keep the treaty from being amended to death once TPP negotiations are completed.

President Obama. He's a great campaigner, but he must have missed the lecture on lobbying Congress. In dealing with Congress, Obama is a klutz, including in his attempts to persuade Democrats. Last week, all but one of the 45 Senate Democrats voted against fast track. After some tinkering, it passed the next day.

Obama ignores the truism that it's easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar. He's heavy on the vinegar. He has accused Democrats of "making stuff up" to strengthen their argument against the treaty. "On trade, I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong," he said. "They're just wrong."

Senator Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts Democrat, a leader of the anti-treaty forces, drew the president's roughest attack. Questioning her motives, he told Yahoo News she is "a politician like everybody else" and her arguments "don't stand the test of fact and scrutiny." His criticism backfired. He was accused of sexism.

Representative Peter Roskam. The Illinois Republican, an influential member of the Ways and Means Committee, says Democrats are balking at Obama's case for the treaty—that it will generate economic growth and jobs. That's a "different world view" from the case for "zero-sum economics" that Obama's been making since he was elected in 2008, Roskam says. He is pro-treaty.

As for Republicans, they simply distrust the president. After tarring them as protectors of the rich and enemies of the poor, Obama has hostile relations with them.

One other problem: lack of effort. In 1993, President Clinton called all hands on deck to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. He set up a war room and recruited William Daley, a respected strategist, to manage the pro-NAFTA campaign. The treaty passed with Republicans voting 132-43 in favor, Democrats 156-102 against.

Obama hasn't matched the Clinton push. House speaker John Boehner "has been telling the White House they've 'got to work this thing.'?" That Obama hasn't was confirmed in last week's vote against fast track. "All the blame for this is at Obama's feet," Roskam says.

Paul Ryan. No one makes the case for free trade and TPP more cogently than does Ryan, the Republican chairman of Ways and Means. The committee passed fast track 25-13, with two Democrats joining all 23 Republicans. "Either we create the rules of trade with our allies or the Chinese will," Ryan told me.

He says the treaty is far from merely Obama's doing. "We are binding the president to our will" with the fast track legislation, he said. It sets 150 guidelines for TPP and requires a 60-day period following congressional approval before the treaty is sent to the president for signing. That will give the public time to see what's in it. And Congress has insisted on access to the treaty as it unfolds. That provides at least some transparency.

Selling the treaty to Congress and country has started "late in the game because of Obama, but it's better late than never," Ryan says. He's held "listening sessions" for members of Congress, lined up conservatives "on the Hill and off the Hill," and created "a drumbeat of support."

Ryan opposed adding enforcement of anti-currency-manipulation meas-ures to the treaty. "Manipulation is hard to value and hard to prove." If the problem is China's currency manipulation designed to spur exports, enforcement shouldn't be in TPP. China isn't a member.

By the way, Ryan is critical of Obama's clumsy lobbying. "Democrats are beginning to see what Republicans have been dealing with for the last seven years," he says. "It's an ability problem" with Obama. "He's out of his comfort zone."

Pat Toomey. The Republican senator from Pennsylvania is a committed free trader. He voted for fast track when it was reported out of the Finance Committee. In January, the Allentown Morning Call noted "a developing trade deal that includes several Asian countries .??.??. has Toomey pressing the Obama administration's trade agenda and Casey expressing unease." Democrat Bob Casey is Pennsylvania's other senator.

Voting for liberalized trade rules is risky for a free trader in a unionized, manufacturing state like Pennsylvania. Toomey is running for reelection in 2016 and depends on the votes of blue-collar Democrats to win. If TPP is a major campaign issue, Toomey would have some explaining to do. Yet he is expected to vote for the treaty—a principled vote.

Rob Portman. The Ohio senator, a Republican, is a former special trade representative. His currency amendment to the fast-track legislation was sharply criticized last week in a Wall Street Journal editorial. It dubbed him one of "the Senate's trade killers" for his insistence on a currency amendment "that could poison the entire bill."

Whew! That was harsh. Portman responded the next day in a letter to the Journal. "Everyone agrees that agreements should establish rules against government actions that distort trade, including export subsidies," he wrote. The administration opposes "our amendment" because "it fears other countries won't support it. Yet the administration supports making labor and environmental standards enforceable."

That's a fair point. Portman's amendment was rejected 15-11 in the Finance Committee. But the manipulation issue was attached to a separate bill that passed 79-20. Portman can still bring it up in the floor debate over fast track. Adding it there and possibly jeopardizing Obama's first serious attempt to generate economic growth isn't worth the risk.

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Fred Barnes is Executive Editor at the Weekly Standard.

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