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Barney Frank explains why Obama can't get liberals to back his trade deal

Barney Frank is not a fan of Obama's trade strategy.
Barney Frank is not a fan of Obama's trade strategy.
Rob Kim/Getty Images

The Obama administration is confused by the breadth and depth of opposition to its Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal among Democrats. Administration officials feel opponents are throwing up bad-faith arguments, relying on outlandish hypotheticals, and seizing on minor side issues. They don't just think critics are mistaken — they profess to be baffled as to what is driving the hostility.

To understand the big picture, as opposed to the specific debating points, they could do worse than read an op-ed former Representative Barney Frank did for the Boston Globe over the weekend. As an ex-politician, Frank has a certain freedom that his colleagues still in Congress lack to advance a politically sophisticated argument that gets away from talking points.

Frank's basic argument:

  1. Trade deals tend to increase income inequality, even if they also increase GDP.
  2. Combined with a strong welfare state, trade deals can lead to prosperity for all.
  3. Barack Obama and congressional Democrats stand for a strong welfare state.
  4. Business lobby groups and congressional Republicans do not.
  5. Business lobby groups and congressional Republicans are really eager to pass TPP.
  6. Per points 1 through 5, it's foolish for a Democratic administration to be pushing TPP without securing something in return.

If the White House read complaints about TPP in light of this syllogism, I think it would make a lot more sense to them. It's true that a lot of the concerns are pretty hypothetical and may not come to pass. But the critics are highlighting possible downside risk to things they care about. In exchange for that risk, there's a lot of upside for a number of US companies.

But there isn't the kind of upside that Frank is talking about. You have a Democratic White House pushing a huge priority for elements of the business community and not asking for anything in exchange.

That doesn't directly contradict anything you would hear from the White House or the US Trade Representative's office, but I think that's why it's so valuable in helping to understand why Obama is facing such an uphill battle with House Democrats. The administration says this is "the most progressive trade deal in history," with tougher-than-ever labor and environmental standards that mitigate some of the inequality concerns that exist around previous deals. But it's still the case that the package accomplishes a lot of things corporate America wants to accomplish, without securing political support for the main things liberals want to accomplish.