By Stanley Greenberg
Appeared in U.S. News & World Report on September 9, 2016.
The heated opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership in this year's presidential election has surprised the policy elite and pundits. They may be even more astonished by what the public makes of it, because the politics of trade and trade agreements will never be the same.
The American voter is now an irrepressible part of the story.
The two parties' presidential candidates' recent Michigan speeches on the economy reflect that reality. Democrat Hillary Clinton declared, "I will stop any trade deals that kills jobs or holds down wages" and oppose the the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the election and as president. Republican Donald Trump condemned every past trade deal that business elites and Clinton have supported, decrying the deals as "stripping this city [Detroit], and this country, of its jobs and wealth." And Trump attacked Clinton as a supporter of the past pacts and TPP.
The presidential candidate's opposition to the trade pact is rooted in different dynamics, but reflect the perspective of the voters they seek to represent.
Trump is the skunk at the country club garden party. His success showed that white working class voters without college degrees now constitute a majority of the Republican base and they will respond to a candidate focused on declining wages, lost industrial jobs and rigged trade deals – and not talking about the evils of the sexual revolution. Previously, GOP base voters warmed to religiously devout candidates stressing social conservatism.
The GOP establishment's challenge was Ronald Reagan's: how to keep the pro-business and pro-religious blocs comfortably under the same umbrella. Because of Trump though, business and Republican leaders can no longer ignore what our polling showed: Republican base voters are passionate opponents of the very "trade" regime that the GOP's donors so strongly support.
A majority of Republicans oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, almost 30 percent strongly. And when GOP campaign strategists consider where they have running room beyond the primary and how they compete in the Rust Belt, they see a big bloc of white working class voters potentially receptive to Trump's trade-pact attack. A stunning 62 percent of white working class men oppose the deal, a third strongly.
Presidents and corporate coalitions once counted on overwhelming support from congressional Republicans. Will that still be true given what the polling reveals about GOP voters' views?
The Democrats' path to intense opposition to the trade pact is very different, our focus groups and polling show. But it may produce an even greater demand for transformation of our "trade" regime.
Democratic voters also want to change how the economy and politics work, viewing both as hijacked by special interests. They are upset about high CEO compensation, companies that no longer invest here, and billionaires and special interests buying politicians to rig the game against the middle class.
Democratic voters' Trans-Pacific Partnership opposition is rooted in anger about the nexus between Washington and Wall Street. They are paying new attention to the fact that the deal is not mainly about trade, but rather provides special rights and protections for multinational investors and specific industries.
Our focus groups also found that GOP voters are as angry as Democrats about corporate influence over government. And the trade deal is readily described as a concrete example of corporate influence gone badly wrong.
Our polling shows that across party lines, voters end up not just opposed, but ready to act to hold their member of Congress accountable when informed that 500 official U.S. trade advisers representing corporate interests were involved in years of closed-door negotiations while the public, press and Congress were locked out and the resulting core provision grants thousands of corporations new rights to sue the U.S. government before a panel of three corporate lawyers.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine premising his opposition to the deal on this regime of three corporate attorneys second-guessing our laws and ordering taxpayers to compensate multinational corporations connects with voters' sense that the pact benefits big corporations at their expense. Interestingly Clinton previewed this in her 2014 book, "Hard Choices": "We should avoid some of the provisions sought by business interests, including our own, like giving them or their investors the power to sue foreign governments to weaken their environmental and public health rules."
That is the kind of message that moves the most pro "free trade" Democrats to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership but also engages the Republican base voters activated by Trump .
President Barack Obama remains an undaunted Trans-Pacific Partnership proponent. But elected officials who do face future elections invite significant voter push back when they ignore the strong sentiment evident among partisans of both parties.