Donald Trump’s blistering new attack on American trade policy puts him on the wrong side of America’s business community and most of his own party’s elected officials. But it also exposes a dangerous weakness of Hillary Clinton’s campaign — her instinct to try to straddle intraparty divides has left her perilously uncertain of what it is she wants to say about the matter.
Clinton is personally and politically tied to Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s and to Barack Obama’s administration more recently, both of which sought to advance a free trade agenda.
She can’t possibly escape those ties. She’s counting on both men as surrogates on the campaign trail, and her circle of advisers has considerable overlap with the previous two Democratic administrations. So one natural reflex is to defend the record.
But both Clinton and especially Obama were opposed in their initiatives by a majority of congressional Democrats and major labor unions. And Hillary Clinton, needing labor allies against Bernie Sanders, came out swinging against the Trans-Pacific Partnership after praising earlier iterations of it as secretary of state.
So she seems to be taking a different route — one more in keeping with her positioning throughout the campaign but one that’s deeply at odds with entrenched impressions of where she stands— is to try to argue that she is the real protectionist in the race. For some other Democrat this strategy might make sense, but for Clinton herself it’s unpersuasive and somewhat confusing.
Clinton surrogates are trying to outdo Trump on hostility to trade
Michael Shapiro, an economic policy adviser to the Clinton campaign, went on Twitter during Trump’s speech to argue that, essentially, Trump was stealing her talking points but she’s the real-deal protectionist.
Meanwhile her campaign surrogates were on television hitting Trump for personally being an outsourcer in his business career.
Clinton campaign's @kristina_schake on MSNBC calls Trump "king of outsourcing."— Alex Seitz-Wald (@aseitzwald) June 28, 2016
Clinton’s official social media account also offered this argument — Trump says he’s against outsourcing, but Trump-branded apparel is made in foreign countries.
Clinton’s problem: Does anyone believe this?
The problem with Clinton’s preferred line of attack is it fails to pass the basic "does anyone actually believe this?" test.
The stated reasons for Clinton’s opposition to the TPP didn’t make any sense and were immediately panned by observers such as Vox editor in chief Ezra Klein as smacking of opportunism. Having come out against it, Clinton will in all likelihood follow through and scuttle the agreement.
But everything about her broader record suggests that she agrees with the basic economic approach of the previous two Democratic administrations. If she were to mount a strong defense of that approach and attack Trump as an ignorant madman whose populist appeals would threaten the world economy, perhaps not everyone would be convinced — but certainly some people would be, and it’s the kind of thing voters might believe.
Yet to run as the unabashed candidate of globalization would divide the Democratic Party at a time when Clinton prefers a united party at her back in the face of Trump’s divided one. That means trying to insist that she’s the real protectionist. If Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown or someone else from the populist wing of the party were the nominee, that would make perfect sense. But Clinton doesn’t have the record or the associations to pull this off. For better or worse, she owns the Bill Clinton/Barack Obama record and is going to have to make the case for continuity.