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Why Hillary Clinton's flip-flopping on trade may not matter

Democratic National Convention: Day Four Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

For decades, trade has divided the Democratic Party. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton championed NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and normalization of trade with China. He faced strong opposition from the labor movement and — as a consequence — from most members of Congress in his own party.

History repeated with Barack Obama. He has spent his presidency hammering out the Trans-Pacific Partnership with countries like Vietnam, Japan, and Chile. And like Bill Clinton, he had to rely primarily on Republican votes to pass a key trade bill in 2015 because most Democrats sided with labor groups and voted no.

The big question now is what Hillary Clinton will do once she gets to the Oval Office. Will she champion business-friendly trade deals like her husband and Obama did? Or will she bow to pressure from labor groups and abandon pending trade deals like the TPP?

This week, Clinton tried to convince trade skeptics at the Democrats’ Philadelphia convention that she was one of them.

Clinton’s convention speech was skeptical of trade — but does she believe it?

"Please explain to me what part of ‘America first’ leads him to make Trump ties in China, not Colorado," Clinton quipped in her speech. Trump suits, she noted, were made "in Mexico, not Michigan. Trump furniture in Turkey, not Ohio. Trump picture frames in India, not Wisconsin."

It’s a theme other speakers have echoed throughout the week, including Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who spoke earlier in the evening on Thursday. It’s part of Clinton’s broader effort to win over Bernie Sanders die-hards by co-opting some of his populist positions.

Yet trade skeptics have reason to doubt her sincerity — not only because of her past record (in 2012 she said that the TPP "sets the gold standard in trade agreements," and then declared her opposition in October) but because Obama also campaigned as a bit of a trade deal skeptic on the campaign trail.

In 2007 and 2008, Obama vowed to reopen negotiations over NAFTA to add stronger labor and environmental protections to the deal. The White House now claims that it fulfilled that promise by negotiating the TPP — which includes Mexico and Canada and covers labor and environmental issues — but that’s not really what NAFTA opponents had in mind.

But in practice, if Clinton is elected president, her trade policy is likely to be driven more by political realities after the election than her pre-election rhetoric. Her record leaves little doubt that she would like to pass more trade deals like the TPP. But negotiating a trade deal does her no good if she can’t get it through Congress. And this is where Hillary Clinton is likely to face a different political environment than her husband or Obama did.

Labor movement agitation will continue to make it hard for President Hillary Clinton to get support from congressional Democrats. But her bigger problem is that she may not be able to turn to congressional Republicans to help her get trade packages over the top.

The GOP just nominated Donald Trump, the most anti-trade presidential candidate in decades. And Trump’s victory reflected a dramatic shift in public opinion: Since 2012, Republican voters have become dramatically more skeptical about trade deals than Democrats.

It’s not clear if this shift in public opinion will last. But after Trump’s primary win, Republican members of Congress are going to be a lot more reluctant to team up with a Democratic president to pass any kind of trade deal. That, combined with continued pressure from the labor left, could make it impossible for Clinton to pass new trade deals, no matter how much she might like to.

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