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The Democrats and the TPP: What Kind of Democracy Do We Want?

The insurgent candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — one uplifting and the other disturbing — together with the Brexit vote, have brought forth an unusual outpouring of discussion on the weaknesses of democratic governance in the high-income countries. There seems to be considerable agreement that all three of these unanticipated political earthquakes of 2016 are driven by discontent with a “democratic deficit.” In the next few days and weeks, we will have a rare opportunity to see, close-up and raw, a historic effort to reduce that deficit.

The venue is the Democratic Party platform committee and the main event is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If that sounds like inside baseball, it could easily become the World Series of this year’s presidential race. And if Hillary Clinton is smart, she will reconsider her bet.

The TPP, a commercial agreement among 12 countries with 40 percent of the world’s GDP, is strongly disliked by the base of the Democratic Party, as well as by a sizable majority of Democratic voters and the general public. There’s an awful lot not to like about this thing. Drafted mostly by corporations, negotiated in secret, with restricted access even for members of Congress, the deal would grant corporations the right to sue governments for all kinds of decisions, laws, or regulations that infringe on their profits or potential profits. The lawsuits would be decided by a panel of private lawyers and their decisions could overrule our Congress and Supreme Court — hence the overlapping issues of national sovereignty and democracy are once again brought to the fore. Patent-boosting rules favored by pharmaceutical companies would increase the price of prescription drugs. And the economic gains, even as estimated by pro-TPP economists, are tiny: by their estimates the agreement would make the US as rich on January 1, 2030 as it would otherwise be by mid-March of the same year.

Sanders campaigned against the TPP, and Hillary Clinton — who had previously praised it as “the gold standard in trade agreements” — has also come out against it. On June 24, at a meeting in St. Louis that produced a draft platform for the Democratic Party, Congressman Keith Ellison introduced language opposing the TPP. But it was defeated by a vote of 10–5, with only the five Sanders representatives supporting it.

Everyone familiar with this process knows that Hillary Clinton has enormous influence over her delegates and representatives on the platform committee. So, if the Democratic Party is unable to oppose the TPP, it will be because of her decision to keep it from doing so.

Of course the game is not over this weekend when the committee approves the platform in Orlando; if defeated there, the Sanders team and its many allies and delegates will take the fight to the floor of the Democratic National Convention, which begins in Philadelphia on July 25. In a much bigger national spotlight, it will be even more difficult for Hillary to avoid responsibility for thwarting the will of the party and its activist and voter base.

Then comes the man with the orange tan: Donald Trump is trying to mobilize in his favor the white working class voters who have made up the swing vote of US presidential elections for more than four decades. And he has been shouting that Hillary doesn’t really oppose the TPP, that she has merely changed her position for this election, and will switch back as soon as it is over. Which would be pretty important if it’s true, since the Obama administration’s plan is to pass the agreement during the lame duck session of Congress, i.e., after the November election but before the new Congress takes office in January. Once again, that would put Hillary in the decisive position; it would be her lobbying — or not — of the Congress at that time that would most likely decide whether it is approved.

That is one reason why the Democratic platform is so crucial in this case: it will be difficult for Hillary, as president, to lobby Democrats for an agreement that the party is on the record as opposing; and there will be more pressure for Democrats in Congress to vote against it.

If Hillary’s representatives on the full, 187-member platform committee in Orlando once again keep the Democratic Party from opposing the TPP, her responsibility for that outcome will be clear. It will be seized upon by her otherwise not very credible opponent.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton lost her first bid for the presidency in large part due to her support for a deeply unpopular cause: the Iraq War. Will she risk making the same mistake for this corporate power grab called the TPP?

This article originally appeared on The Hill.

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Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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