In the spring of 2015, an assemblage of Vietnamese government officials were clearly taken aback when, in the course of a workshop, I explained that criticism of the TPP had become so widespread in U.S. politics that passage was not at all certain, and that in the presidential election year of 2016, “politics will be so feverish that adoption of something as controversial as the TPP will be impossible.” Today, it is clear that this unhappy forecast has come to pass.
This year’s election campaign is even more “feverish” than usual, and any hope for the TPP’s adoption before the election has long since vanished. The larger problem, however, is that, even once the election campaign is behind us, its residue will diminish the chances for successful adoption of the TPP for a long time to come. Protectionist themes dominate the policy rhetoric of all the principal candidates.
Three contenders remain – two Democrats and a Republican. All three proclaim opposition to the TPP. Donald Trump, the Republican, and Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, are long-standing opponents of trade agreements. Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, has only recently announced opposition to the agreement, which she had previously supported.
Bernie Sanders describes himself as a “Democratic Socialist.” As such, his position on the TPP is staunchly protectionist. He is a defender of the labor unions, most of which are opposed free-trade in general and the TPP in particular. Moreover, he denounces the TPP as a device intended only to benefit large corporations and Wall Street, institutions which are the principal targets of his campaign attacks. It is, at this time, very unlikely that Senator Sanders can win the Democratic nomination and be elected president. Were he to be elected, it would represent a major leftward shift in American politics, probably accompanied by large Democratic gains in congressional elections. Under a Sanders presidency, the TPP would most likely be forgotten.
Donald Trump is running a “populist” campaign. He is a very unusual candidate for the Republican Party. For many years, most Republican leaders have supported trade agreements, such as NAFTA. Trade agreements have usually been adopted with large support from the Republicans in Congress and somewhat lesser support from Democrats. Donald Trump, however, is basing his campaign on the support of angry middle and working-class Americans who have not done well in the new economy. He tells the “disappearing middle class” that the TPP is very bad for them. This suggests that if Trump is elected, there would be no chance of the TPP being adopted.
At present, however, Trump and prominent leaders of the Republican Party are engaged in an effort to “unify” the party, which was completely unprepared for the success of his populist campaign. The principal actor in the unification effort is the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who is a strong proponent of free trade, including the TPP. It is possible, though not likely, that as part of the party-unification process, Trump might be persuaded to soften his opposition to the TPP somewhat. In that case, a Republican Congress would probably go forward with it. It is very unlikely that Trump would alter his opposition, however, without some provision for greater protections for American workers.
The most promising election result, in terms of the TPP, would be the election of Hillary Clinton, even though she currently professes opposition to the agreement. She was usually a proponent of free trade in the past. She is by far the most “internationalist” of the three remaining candidates. It is widely assumed that her recent opposition to the TPP is merely expedient, a necessary, albeit insincere, gesture to forestall defections from the left wing of the Democratic Party. She was, after all, among the architects of the TPP. Now, however, she faces strong opposition to the TPP within the Democratic Party, which she must placate in order to win the nomination. If she is elected, she may be able, after a decent interval, to revert to her previous position of support for the TPP, especially if she can take credit for concessions from other participating countries. She may then be able to count on greater support from Democrats in Congress and also from the significant number of remaining free-trade Republicans.
One scenario that deserves discussion is the possibility of the TPP being considered by a “lame duck” Congress in the fall. That is, consideration by the current Congress after the election, but before the new Congress and president take office in January. This is an unlikely course because it is has many uncertainties and difficulties for either political party. If Trump is elected, it would be an act of open defiance for this Republican-controlled Congress to pass the TPP during a lame-duck session. If Clinton is elected, however, it might be possible for free-trade Republicans and some Democrats to pass the TPP, in spite of her present opposition, provided that President Barack Obama resolutely pushes the issue in a way that does not implicate her in a repudiation of her campaign posture.
In summary, the election of either Sanders or Trump would be very bad, probably fatal, for the prospects of the TPP. The election of Hillary Clinton would leave some room for its revival, especially if the other participating countries appreciate the political difficulty of her again changing her position, and give her some room to boast of a few changes in favor of American workers. There may be some slim possibility of the TPP being passed during the lame duck session of Congress after the election if Hillary Clinton is elected.
The present administration has, of course, strongly supported the TPP. It has not, however, done a good job of selling it to the American public. There is a widespread concern with declining employment opportunities in the American economy. Americans, especially those of the working class and middle class, believe that too many American jobs have been lost to countries with lower costs of doing business, especially wages. This is an old complaint in American politics, but, in the current economic climate, many politicians of both parties have exacerbated the extent to which Americans believe it is true. As Sanders, Trump, Clinton, and their supporters attack free trade and disparage the TPP, the Obama administration has said little to repudiate their criticisms. To do so would put the administration at odds with both Clinton and Sanders.
If the TPP is to have any chance in the U.S., it is important that the present administration, in the time that is left to it, mount a vigorous defense of the TPP, clearly explaining its advantages, both economic and political. It is, of course, asking a lot of the Obama administration to openly rebuke a major principle of the nominee of the Democratic party, whether Clinton or Sanders. If the TPP is to be saved, however, Obama must rise to the occasion and advocate passionately for it.
William G. Frasure is Professor of Government at Connecticut College. He has worked and lived intermittently in Hanoi since 1997, teaching, lecturing, directing academic exchanges, and occasionally consulting for various Vietnamese government agencies and ministries.