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Did Hillary Clinton Defeat Bernie Sanders on Trade?

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Hillary Clinton’s campaign is claiming it beat Bernie Sanders on trade, or at least an article at Tiger Beat on the Potomac makes this claim. Typical of said publication, it just lets the Clinton campaign serve itself what it wants to hear.

Clinton’s position of supporting trade deals in general but rejecting the current version of a deal based on specific objections, her campaign said, was more in line with the position of a majority of Democratic voters today than Sanders’ blanket moral opposition to trade deals overall.

It also helped to insulate her from attacks from Sanders and the left — but the bigger question remains of whether it will protect her in a potential fall matchup against Donald Trump, who blames free-trade deals for gutting the US economy.

“Voters agree that we have to compete and win in a global economy and that means we have to make things in the United States that we can sell to 95 percent of the world’s consumers who happen to live outside of the United States,” said Clinton’s senior strategist, Joel Benenson. “What the data from the exit polls says is these voters were more aligned with her fundamental view of trade.”

This is really self-serving. Later in the article, the author cites an AFL-CIO spokesperson that Clinton would not have won in Ohio if she did not come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That’s probably right. She needed to do that. That’s just basic politics, even though I have no doubt in my mind she would gladly sign the bill to enact it. So I guess if beating Bernie Sanders on trade means coming closer to his position in order to win a few more votes, then sure, she won on the issue.

But the idea that her victories earlier this week is a sign that the American voter really believes in the current trade system that led to NAFTA and the TPP is just a bunch of hot air. And this is just absurd:

“What this Midwest sweep showed,” said Jonathan Cowan, a former Clinton administration official who is president of the moderate think tank Third Way, “is that the trade issue in a Democratic primary has been dramatically overhyped. Clinton demonstrated she was the one who would restore the basic bargain for growth. That has big implications for the party and governing and for the fall.”

Cowan is just flat out wrong. The trade issue has been central to the entire Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Hillary Clinton might defeat that phenomenon. She almost certainly will, thanks to her structural advantages, his late campaign start, and his inability to reach parts of the Democratic base on issues other than trade and the economy. But this hardly means it’s time for Third Way hacks to pat themselves on the back and start working for a Grand Bargain with Republicans that will gut the social safety net in exchange for circus peanuts. If these people are smart, a point very much in doubt, they will realize that the left-wing rebellion within the Democratic Party on trade, the minimum wage, and economic inequality, has likely only just begun. There will be continued demands for a higher minimum wage (which I believe would be a very early priority of President Hillary Clinton), for trade deals that help American workers instead of export their jobs overseas, and for broad-based measures to reduce income inequality. Hillary Clinton didn’t win North Carolina and Florida or Ohio because voters thought she was right about trade. She won for entirely legitimate reasons, but not because the Democratic base really believes in this supposedly nuanced but what is rather a political opportunist position on trade.

In any case, a candidate with massive structural advantages that forced her late-rising challenger to cede many states because he didn’t have the resources to compete in them, which is implicitly admitted in the article, did not somehow defeat the left-wing insurgence on trade. At most, she co-opted just enough of it to win the primary. And that’s fine from a political perspective. That’s what a candidate is supposed to do. But let’s not start bragging about it because it’s not something to brag about. It’s something to take seriously because large swaths of the Democratic base are demanding action on these issues more than they have in a half-century. Taking that seriously and incorporating those critiques into governance is a lot smarter.

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