Are the Blue Dog Democrats to blame for US inaction on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement?

Well, at least partially. 

With the World Trade Organization stalling, regional agreements like the TPP are the next best option for making international trade easier and cheaper. And with trade growth slowing they are more important than ever. When the negotiations were launched in Melbourne six years ago it seemed reasonable that a handful of moderate Congressional Democrats would eventually join a Republican majority to pass the TPP, as they’d done with other US trade deals. 

But the one thing Democrats and Republicans currently seem to be able to agree on is their mutual distaste for the TPP, which means getting the deal through Congress will be tough. That has the rest of the TPP countries in limbo because negotiators from the 12 countries had effectively agreed that the agreement could not come into force without US participation. 

How did it come to this?

Democratic political opposition to trade deals isn’t new, particularly during presidential elections. Democrats have traditionally courted the support of labour unions like the AFL-CIO and have long argued that free trade hurts the American working class by sending jobs overseas.

But the White House and Congressional Republicans have always been able to count on a small but important minority of Congressional Democrats to help free trade agreements (FTAs) across the line. This Democratic contingent was led by the Blue Dogs (moderate Democrats who supported federal fiscal restraint and were hawkish on national security). They also supported free trade as a tool to spur on US economic growth and private sector growth job creation. In 1993 when Bill Clinton was trying to secure Congressional ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Blue Dogs helped to lead the charge. A whopping 40% of House Democrats ultimately supported NAFTA. 

But election losses and retirements have diminished the Blue Dogs — there are now only 14 members of the coalition left — weakening Democratic backing for trade agreements. Indeed, compared to NAFTA, only 15% of House Democrats voted for Trade Promotion Authority last year, the legislation which simplifies the US process for agreeing to trade deals. 

Meanwhile, the changed American political landscape which has put the Blue Dogs under pressure has also thrown into doubt the GOP’s status as the undeniable party of free trade. Some Republican senators have come out against the TPP because they worry it doesn’t go far enough to help big American business. Others agree with the sentiment that trade deals hurt American jobs. These are the same Republicans who now see the working-class white men who soured on free trade after the Global Financial Crisis as their key constituency. 

The result is a gloomy outlook for the TPP getting through Congress. But there’s at least a glimmer of hope.

Like China bashing, anti-trade rhetoric is typical during US presidential campaigns. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama criticised NAFTA and US free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Central America, only to champion them once in office. 

If the TPP isn’t passed under Obama, it’s possible the next president could execute a similar pivot. That’s because while US anti-trade groups have been organised and vocal, polling by the Pew Research Centre last year showed that 68% of Americans agreed that boosting trade and business ties between the US and other countries is a good thing for their country.

What’s more, Pew polling of registered American voters in March of this year shows that Democratic voters are now actually far more supportive of free trade agreements than Republicans (56% to 38%), breaking the previous Democrat anti-trade mould. And Clinton supporters have the most positive view of FTAs, giving her the easier path to push the TPP through, despite her endorsement by major US trade unions: 58% of her supporters say FTAs have been a good thing for the US, compared to only 27% of Donald Trump supporters. 

But voters have mixed views on the impact of FTAs on their personal lives. Fewer than one in five Americans think that free trade agreements create jobs and higher wages, and 36% say that FTAs have hurt their financial situation. Key to US ratification of the TPP will be addressing head-on the sense that trade has been good for business, but that the benefits have not been felt by all.

Without the Blue Dogs around to help, this will be a tough (but not impossible) task. 

Photo: Flickr/US Capitol Building