Back in 2007, there was a new Democratic majority in Congress and there were four free trade agreements ready to be passed: Peru, Colombia, Panama, and Korea. Peru was voted through, but the rest were waylaid. A key argument for the delay was that these agreements had been crafted by the Bush administration without sufficient attention to Democratic concerns. Democrats were not opposed to free trade agreements in general, the argument went, just to bad free trade agreements.
Enter President Obama. He argued that it was possible to do FTAs properly. He launched into new negotiations with the Koreans. His team reached an action plan to address labor concerns in Colombia. After two and a half years of reworking, last night the results were put to a vote. I previewed this last week, but now it was to be put to the test. Could a Democratic president lead his party into a new bipartisan consensus on trade?
Here was the outcome (with data from the invaluable govtrack.us):
So, after years of toil, the share of House Democrats voting for FTAs went from just over 48% for Peru in 2007, to 16% (Colombia), 35% (Panama), and 31% (Korea) last night. So trade is no longer an issue that divides House Democrats – they are now relatively unified in opposition. The low tally on Korea is particularly striking since this was the most extensive FTA reworking by the Obama White House; it won the support of the United Auto Workers and House Ways and Means Ranking Member Sandy Levin (D-MI); and it was also the clearest response to long-standing criticisms that the Bush White House had sought FTAs predominantly with economically minor trading partners.
Imagine you were an Obama strategist, looking at these numbers. The question before you is whether to make a serious push to address big pending trade talks, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the woe-begotten Doha Round of global talks at the World Trade Organization. There would only be two reasons to do so: 1) You discovered a deep new belief in the virtues of trade; 2) You’re moving to the center and looking to work with the Republicans. Even if these conditions held, you would be unlikely to take on anything so controversial until 2013.