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Hillary Clinton's flip-flop on the TPP makes no sense

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

After months of hinting she might oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Hillary Clinton made it official this week. And her explanation for why she's coming out against the deal now — after years of supporting it — makes no sense.

During her time as secretary of state, from 2009 to 2013, Clinton was a strong supporter of the TPP. CNN has a fun article documenting 45 times Secretary Clinton spoke out in favor of the deal, which was then in the early stages of negotiation. She even said in 2012 that "this TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements."

Now she sees things differently. In the interview with PBS's Judy Woodruff where she came out against the treaty, she cited two specific objections: It doesn't have language dealing with currency manipulation, and it has provisions that favor big drug companies over patients.

These are totally plausible arguments for opposing the TPP. But they make no sense as reasons for Clinton to change her mind about the treaty.

The pharmaceutical language in the TPP is better than expected

In her Wednesday PBS interview, Clinton said she was "worried that the pharmaceutical companies may have gotten more benefits, and patients and consumers fewer."

One of the most controversial issues in the TPP negotiations was an Obama administration proposal to grant drug companies 12 years of legal protections for a type of drugs called biologics. Companies that develop biologic drugs enjoy 12 years of protection against copycats in the United States, but other countries have shorter terms. The Obama administration was pushing for language requiring all countries to conform to the US standard.

But surprisingly, the US didn't get its way. Other TPP countries opposed the US's proposal, and ultimately the parties agreed to a complex deal that granted between five and eight years of protection.

There are two ways that Clinton's professed concern over an excessively pro-pharma deal rings hollow. One is that — unlike currency manipulation — this is an issue where Clinton speaking up earlier could have made a difference in the negotiations. Instead, Clinton at the time carefully avoided addressing the substance of the TPP's drug provisions. I can't find a single example where she called for Obama to accept the more consumer-friendly terms other countries were demanding.

Second, the final version of the TPP wound up being less friendly to big drug companies than the version US negotiators proposed. If Clinton was concerned about the TPP being too friendly to big drug companies, the final version should have made her more, not less, comfortable, than the "gold standard" version she once praised.

Currency manipulation was never going to be part of the TPP

TPP critics, including the AFL-CIO, have been raising concerns about currency manipulation since the outset of TPP negotiations. Members of Congress from across the political spectrum have urged the White House to make currency manipulation an issue in the TPP negotiations.

The Obama administration has flatly refused these requests. And they've had a fairly persuasive argument, too: Foreign governments won't go for it. Countries around the world see control over currency as a core part of national sovereignty. If the US had taken a hard line on the issue, it likely would have simply derailed the negotiations.

That was the administration's position when Clinton served as secretary of state. And it was the administration's position in early 2015, when Clinton began expressing concern about the lack of currency manipulation language in the TPP.

By early 2015, negotiations over the TPP were coming to a close. Clinton knew perfectly well there was zero chance that US negotiators would even bring up the issue, to say nothing of getting other countries to go along with it. Raising the issue in 2015 was simply a way of laying the groundwork for eventual opposition.

Of course, if she really thought currency manipulation was an essential part of the agreement, she probably shouldn't have described the deal as the "gold standard in trade agreements" in the first place.