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Obama Is Selling the TPP Trade Deal Just Like Al Gore Sold NAFTA

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One of President Barack Obama’s favorite points to make in the intra-party dispute over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement with twelve Pacific Rim nations is that his opponents rehash the same old, tired anti-globalization arguments. As Obama told the Wall Street Journal on Monday, “There has been a confluence of anti-global engagement from both elements of the right and elements of the left that I think [is] a big mistake.”

But Obama’s arguments are old and tired, too. They come from a playbook for how the last Democratic administration sold a free trade deal opposed by unions and the party base. Watch this 1993 CNN debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot:

That remarkable debate, where a sitting vice president and a former presidential candidate took phone calls with Larry King, happened eight days before the final NAFTA vote in Congress. It is remembered now mostly for Perot’s continual anger at being interrupted; “Can I finish!” became a Dana Carvey SNL tag line, and Perot turned into a national joke. Gore earned praise for keeping Perot off-balance with aggressive debate tactics, but the core arguments should all sound familiar. Let’s go through them, one by one:

This Time Is Different

Gore made a distinction between previous trade deals with Japan and China, and NAFTA, with its side agreements on labor and the environment. Critics of NAFTA “confuse the bad trade deals in the past with this one,” Gore said. “We've got a commitment for the first time in history to use trade sanctions to compel the enforcement of their environmental standards.”

This mirrors Obama’s claim about inferior prior deals—including NAFTA. “Not every trade deal has lived up to the hype,” Obama acknowledged to Vox’s Matt Yglesias. He’s even suggested that TPP, which includes Mexico and Canada as signatories, can fix NAFTA. Democrats sell these agreements by renouncing the past, in an attempt to insulate themselves from criticism about trade.

But just as NAFTA’s side agreements did not compel enforcement on Mexico’s labor and environmental laws, deals signed and administered by Obama aren’t policed strongly either, as the Government Accountability Office concluded last November. The AFL-CIO filed a legal brief this week over the lack of sanctions, under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, for the murder of 17 labor activists in Guatemala. In Colombia, where the administration negotiated an “ambitious and comprehensive” plan to protect worker’s rights, 105 trade unionists have been murdered over the last four years. Rather pathetically, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office boasted that the murder rate was lower than in previous years. And TPP rules reportedly represent a downgrade from the Colombia standards.

Everyone Agrees With Me

Gore repeatedly cited the endorsement of “every living president in both parties, the one-termers and the two-termers,” along with bipartisan coalitions of secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury. Here’s a letter the Obama administration passed around last week citing support for TPP from all prior living Treasury secretaries.

The goal is to marginalize opponents as outside the mainstream. Gore lumped in Perot with “Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, and Ralph Nader,” apart from the Very Serious People who run the world. Perot countered, correctly, that those people “are the guys that cut the worst trade deals in history.” So the tactic is to simultaneously trash previous trade agreements while talking up support from the same people who negotiated those agreements.

We’re the Good Guys

“Bill Clinton and I were elected to do something about what's happening to working men and women in this country,” Gore said midway through the debate, aligning NAFTA with their campaign platform of “fighting for the forgotten middle class.” Opening up markets to sell more cars in Mexico, for example, fit into this plan. “We’ll sell 60,000 cars [in Mexico] the first year.”

In promoting TPP, Obama has constantly traded on his good name with liberals. “My overarching priority in everything I do is figuring out how we can create greater opportunity for the middle class and people who are working hard to get into the middle class,” he told reporters last week. And he’s highlighted opening up markets to sell more cars in Japan. U.S. automakers and their unions, of course, oppose TPP, along with most of the Democratic base.

They’re the Luddites

In one of the more dramatic moments of the debate, Gore pulled out a picture of Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley, who collaborated on a notorious import tariff bill in 1930. “Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley protection bill,” Gore said, holding the picture, “and it was one of the principal causes, many economists say the principal cause, of the Great Depression in this country and around the world.” Gore then gave the picture as a gift to Perot, who dropped it in disgust.

It’s not true that the Smoot-Hawley tariff caused the Depression: Imports and exports were a small fraction of gross national product at the time, and there were sundry other factors. But the point was to characterize Perot as an unsophisticated demagogue. “If we give in to the politics of fear and make the wrong choice, the consequences would be catastrophic,” Gore intoned. 

Obama has not accused anyone of wanting to bring back Smoot-Hawley, but he has framed TPP as progress. “What we’re not going to do is to reverse the trends of globalization. We’ve got to be in the game,” Obama told the Wall Street Journal. This is analogous to Gore’s marginalization of Perot. If you’re concerned about our persistent trade deficit, manufacturing job losses, and unenforceable standards that depress wages, then you’re a troglodyte with no understanding of global economics.

Be Very Afraid

Just as Gore excoriates Perot for playing the politics of fear, he engages in the same tactic. “President Salinas has a trade mission to Japan the month after the vote on NAFTA. If we don’t take this deal, Japan… will be in there in a New York minute.” (Perot scoffed at this: “The Japanese are coming! Next thing you’ll say the British are coming!”) Gore argued repeatedly that passing NAFTA would give the United States leverage to drop trade barriers with other countries in Europe and Asia; it “allows us to open up other markets around the world.”

The Obama administration has highlighted TPP as allowing America to “set the rules for global trade,” rather than ceding that position to China. At a news conference earlier this month, Obama warned that without TPP, “China will set up rules that advantage Chinese workers and Chinese businesses.” Clinton/Obama free trade agreements are not just good in their own right, but models for the world to follow. Veterans of both administrations will admit that didn’t work for NAFTA; why should we believe it for TPP?

Obama hasn’t held a real debate with opponents on TPP, mainly because no eccentric billionaires are spending heavily to threaten the deal. But if the administration gets put in that position, maybe they can send out Al Gore to make the case. Or they could just roll the CNN tape.