By William K. Black
Quito: June 13, 2015
My answer to the question I pose in my title is “no.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is far from dead and can only be defeated by heroic efforts by a broad coalition of Americans dedicated to the interests of our Nation and its people and willing to pay the price to oppose the triumph of corporate interests. The focus of this column, however, is on the New York Times’ coverage of Friday’s vote on a key component of President Obama and the Republican leadership’s efforts to make the TPP law. That focus requires some tangential discussion of the substantive arguments for and against TPP but I will minimize that discussion because I have explained previously in greater detail why I oppose the TPP and urge Americans to make our efforts to defeat it one of our highest priorities.
The reasons to defeat TPP have nothing to do with political party. The NYT, however, treated Friday’s House vote against TPP almost entirely in partisan political terms. Indeed, the paper’s coverage focused almost exclusively on Democrats and its perspective was almost entirely that of President Obama’s framing of the issues. The NYT ignored the majority bipartisan opposition to TPP based on the harm it would cause to our people and sovereignty, the obscene manner in which it was drafted in secret by corporate interests, and the indefensible manner in which it presented to Congress without any meaningful opportunity to (a) know the deal terms, (b) know which corporate interests had secretly drafted the terms for their personal benefit, or (c) vote down even the worst examples of corporate abuses.
Instead, the NYT “analysis” (initially) entitled its column: “Washington Dysfunction, With a Twist: Democrats Desert Their President.” That is a remarkable title, particularly for a supposed news story rather than an op ed. The NYT writers’ advocacy for TPP is so extreme that they redefined “democracy” as “dysfunction.” A more apt “twist” in their title would have been: “Democrats Refuse Obama’s Attempt to ‘Seduce’ them to Desert their Principles and Constituents.”
The NYT story is so poor that it did not even provide the reader with the vote count on the trade adjustment bill. The Washington Post provides that information.
The key roll call came on a measure to grant financial aid to displaced workers, with 144 Democrats linking arms with 158 Republicans in a rout that left the overall package of trade bills stalled.
Fewer than 30% of the members of the House who cast a vote supported the trade adjustment bill being pushed by Obama and the Republican leadership. Strong majorities of both parties came together in the House to defeat the bill. The NYT is normally rapturous about bipartisan coalitions, but when the coalition comes together to block the TPP the NYT suddenly hates bipartisan consensus. The paper’s usual support for terrible bipartisan efforts such as the Grand Consensus (aka the Grand Betrayal) suddenly gets warped into a meme that the Democratic Party is in “disarray and divided.” A total of 144 House Democrats voted against the bill, while only 40 voted for it. A total of 86 Republicans voted for the bill, while 158 Republicans voted against it. Both parties were “divided” on the vote (as one would expect) but if “disarray” is applicable to either party it would have to be the Republican Party, which was more split that the Democrats. In my view, however, “disarray” does not describe either Party on this vote. Seventy-eight percent of House Democrats that voted opposed the trade adjustment bill, which represents a remarkable consensus given the massive corporate lobbying on behalf of the TPP.
The NYT makes the classic error of conflating President Obama with the Democratic Party. Whenever “New Democrats” (and Obama has stated openly that his heart is with that branch of the Party) near the end of their term in office they become dominated with their quest to leave a historical “legacy.” While the Republican Party celebrates its base, New Democrats believe that they can only acquire a “legacy” as a “statesman” by attacking the base of the Democratic Party. Obama’s team was open about this when it was trying to cut the “Grand Betrayal” deal that would have made him a one-term president. The irony was that he was saved from his effort at political suicide by the Republicans, who demanded that Obama agree to ever more extreme austerity and cuts to the safety net. Obama realized the betrayal he was trying so desperately to negotiate would be blocked by congressional Democrats because it was so extreme.
Another NYT article confirms that Obama is fully into his “legacy” mode.
Hours after President Obama made a dramatic, personal appeal for support, House Democrats on Friday thwarted his push to expand trade negotiating power — and quite likely his chance to secure a legacy-defining accord spanning the Pacific Ocean.
It should not be surprising to the NYT that the Democratic Party members of the House are focused on the Nation and their own prospects of being re-nominated and reelected and not on Obama’s vain personal quest for fame through another in a long series of terrible trade deals supported by the New Democrats. Obama, after exceptional lobbying by the administration and its corporate allies, was able to keep the votes of fellow New Democrats, but the House “blue dogs” are now a much smaller force. When Republican voters are given a choice between Republicans and Democrats who support Republican policies they vote for the Republicans.
It may not be enough, because the corporate pressure and Obama’s insatiable desire for a “legacy” represent enormous lobbying power, but the House Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed on policy grounds to the TPP. The Democratic Party used to be in disarray on these gifts to corporate interests when the New Democrats held most key leadership positions, but the Democratic Party is now strongly opposed to such corporate giveaways.
Here is how the NYT “analysis” spun the bipartisan House rejection of the trade adjustment bill.
After years of Republican derision of President Obama’s fiscal agenda, which they frequently describe as socialism, in the end it was the president’s own Democratic Party that deprived him of what would have been the largest economic policy victory of his second term.
Let us recall the reality. Over 70% of the House voted against the bill including substantial majorities of both parties. So, a bipartisan coalition rejected the bill. Notice that the “analysis” claims that TPP would have been a victory for Obama – not our Nation or people. The key phrase is the vote “deprived him … of … the largest economic victory of his second term.” But why should anyone (other than Obama and the ghost writer of his memoirs) care about whether Obama scores something he considers a personal “victory?”
We then learn the NYT’s bizarre concept of “dysfunction.”
The stunning defeat was the culmination of years of political dysfunction in Washington, with a twist.
After decades of watching presidents secure trade agreements from South Korea to Mexico, even in the face of opposition from their base, Democrats have broadly come to the conclusion that such agreements exacerbate income inequality. They refused to come out in sufficient numbers to help Mr. Obama bring a broad agreement over the line.
The NYT has turned the word “dysfunction” into its antonym. Consider carefully the “logic” of the “analysis.” The NYT admits that for “decades” Democrats have betrayed “their base” to execute bad trade deal after bad trade deal that harmed their constituents. That represents a massive, prolonged “political dysfunction.” The current vote, against the TPP by House Democrats, therefore, represents something called “well-functioning” government and democracy under the NYT’s own logic. Further, it is the opposite of a party in “disarray” for the NYT admits that the Democrats “have broadly” decided that the TPP represents a terrible policy and overwhelmingly voted against it Friday. In sum, in two of its lead paragraphs the NYT refuted their “analysis” of the Friday TPP vote on the trade adjustment bill – and its writers had no clue that they had done so.
Notice also that the NYT knowingly misstates the basis for the Democratic Party’s opposition to the TPP. It is true that such deals increase inequality, but the Democrats have far broader and more intense policy reasons to oppose the corporate giveaway. This misstatement proves to be the norm throughout the article. This paragraph is typical.
Mr. Obama’s struggle also reflected a longstanding policy of the administration of maintaining a cool distance from Capitol Hill, enraging members of both parties. He delegated most of the arm-twisting to his unpopular trade representative, Michael Froman, thus allowing a populist figure, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, to take up much of the oxygen on the debate. She railed against trade deals on television during the period when the White House was trying to seduce those on the fence.
It is clear that the authors are no fans of Democrats in general. Obama and Froman are portrayed negatively but the substantive reasons why so many Democrats are opposed to their efforts are ignored. Froman is a Citigroup official who has spent his career inside and outside government advancing the interests of large corporations at the expense of our Nation and people. The treatment of Warren is even more negative, but also devoid of substance and ad hominem. As anyone sentient has observed, Warren is the smartest, best-prepared member of Congress on a wide range of matters involving economics and finance. She has provided detailed, substantive reasons for her opposition to TPP. But the NYT “analysis” is an exercise in propaganda for the TPP, so Warren is first dismissively labeled a “populist” (code for “not a serious person”), then described as “tak[ing] up much of the oxygen on the debate” (code for “how dare she talk so much”), and then dismissed as simply “rail[ing]” against the TPP (code for “she’s got nothing”).
Note that the NYT does not provide any explanation for its accurate phrase that Obama “was trying to seduce those on the fence.” “Seduce” is code for cutting cynical backroom deals to try to buy the votes of Democrats “on the fence” (those most responsive to the interests of corporations rather than constituents). It is, of course, fitting that Obama was eagerly offering cynical secret deals to House Democrats to betray their principles and their constituents by approving a trade deal that is the product of literally hundreds of secret deals to favor corporate interests over the interests of our Nation and our people. But it would be nice if the NYT were to make that point and to do investigative reporting on the secret deals that won Obama the votes of a small number of House Democrats.
The NYT “analysis” inadvertently describes a triumph of democracy. It inadvertently describes the failure of the combined efforts of Obama, corporate lobbyists, neo-liberal economists, and “serious people” in the media to successfully bribe or intimidate more than a handful of “on the fence” House Democrats to betray their principles and constituents. It inadvertently describes the courage of Warren in continuing her efforts to explain why TPP was a bad policy in the face of personal attacks on her by Obama. But the NYT analysis makes none of these points explicitly and tries to mislead the reader into believing the opposite.
The NYT followed that exercise in ad hominem abuse of Warren with these two paragraphs that also represent a dishonest presentation.
As the vote seemed to be increasingly in question, Mr. Obama brought members to the White House for meals, directly rebutted Ms. Warren, and seemed genuinely and publicly invested in the outcome in a way he rarely appeared to be was on gun control, climate, taxes, even immigration measures that have come before and failed in Congress.
At the same time, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader who generally uses her muscle to impose her will on her caucus, remained oddly in no man’s land, being pulled by uber-liberals in one direction and conflicted by her loyalty to the president in the other.
Obama did not “rebut” Warren. Instead, in deliberately insulting terms, he pronounced her to be flat out wrong – but on grounds that he could not share with us because he has classified the TPP deal as a state secret. Subsequent leaks of TPP details showed that Warren was correct and Obama was wrong both substantively and in his denials. Yes, Obama has made TPP his hope for his “legacy” and made it his top priority. Again, that makes the House Democrats’ vote far more impressive as a demonstration of principled decision-making and devotion to democracy and constituents.
The NYT discussion of Pelosi offers an important insight into the authors’ political views. Recall that the authors have just acknowledged that House “Democrats have broadly come to the conclusion” that TPP is another in a series of bad deals that represent giveaways to corporate interests. But note that only a few paragraphs later this “broad” consensus by Democrats is described as Pelosi “being pulled by uber-liberals in one direction.” The NYT is describing the broad base of House Democrats as “uber-liberals.” Every political study shows that elected Democrats are far more moderate than Republicans. So, if the House Democrats are “uber-liberals,” what label will the NYT authors apply to House Republicans? Everyone knows that the NYT will not apply a label that extreme to the Republicans.
I’ll end with a warning. TPP is not dead. Obama, the Republican leadership, corporate lobbyists, neo-liberal economists, and “serious people” in the media will launch a full court press to revive TPP. It offers so many billions of dollars in benefits to corporate interests at the expense of our Nation and our people that their efforts to pass TPP will become frenzied. It is dangerous for any Nation when its leader becomes consumed with the personal vanity represented by the quest for “his” “legacy.” It will take enormous efforts to have any hope of preventing TPP from being inflicted on our Nation and other nations.