Clinton Is Wrong on TPP

Lurching left.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Hillary Clinton's decision to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal isn't surprising. But let's be clear: It's a serious mistake. 

Even on the tactical grounds that presumably dictated it, the decision is questionable. More important, on the merits -- on whether it's good for America, as opposed to being good for Clinton's campaign for the presidency -- it's just plain wrong.

If TPP isn't carried out, the U.S. economy will suffer. And the stakes are even higher than that. In opposing international efforts to foster new kinds of trade, and overthrowing years of tortuous negotiations, Clinton, intentionally or not, is sending the message that she thinks the U.S. should no longer lead.

Free Trade Feud

On one level, her calculation makes sense. Although Clinton remains the favorite to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, her campaign isn't going well. The party has moved left, and the champion of that shift, Bernie Sanders, is gathering support. Clinton has already been pulled in the same direction -- coming out against both the Cadillac tax on high-cost health plans (a cause dear to U.S. unions) and the Keystone pipeline (a touchstone for many in the green wing of her party).

Opposing TPP is a far more significant concession to the left. Defending liberal trade to her party in its current mood wouldn't be easy. Yet her choice is risky, because it's such a naked reversal. As secretary of state, Clinton helped to shape the pact. Not that long ago, she was calling it the "gold standard" in trade agreements.

Lurching as violent as this, not to mention disloyalty to the administration she helped lead, looks weak. Looking weak isn't how you win elections.

The main thing, though, is that the policy is bad as economics and lamentable as foreign policy. TPP isn't flawless: Trade deals involve compromise. Nonetheless, U.S. negotiators have secured their main goals on dispute settlement, labor and environmental standards, and other difficult issues. The bigger picture is that the pact stands to bring new kinds of trade -- in services, intellectual property and the digital economy -- more securely into a rule-based liberal order. That's a big win for U.S. interests.

In practical terms, it means more competition, more innovation and higher living standards. To be sure, trade-driven growth involves losers as well as winners -- and a compassionate center-left party should bring forward ideas for helping the victims. But a promise that current patterns of employment, and the industrial structures that underlie them, can be held fixed as the rest of the world advances is a grim delusion, and a decidedly un-American one.

In repudiating TPP, Clinton is rejecting what might become one of the Barack Obama administration's best and most enduring achievements. It does nothing to advance her case.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.