PHILADELPHIA — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s commitment to free trade landed him in hot water this week with the Clinton campaign and exposed the tension between his dual roles as governor of a state reliant on international business and “first friend” to the Clintons.
Just as McAuliffe was running a gantlet of interviews Wednesday to backtrack on a claim that Hillary Clinton would eventually support a controversial trade agreement, his office released a statement trumpeting an agricultural-exports deal with China.
McAuliffe has said he thinks more deals like a Richmond company’s sale of livestock feed could flourish under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, striking a contrast with Clinton, who turned against the TPP amid pressure from the left wing of her party.
“Hillary and I are good friends,” McAuliffe said in a phone interview with The Washington Post on Friday. “I disagree with her. I think she is wrong. But I look at it through the prism of being governor, I have to do what’s right for Virginia.”
Foreign investment has been key to McAuliffe’s governing philosophy since the powerhouse political fundraiser moved into the executive mansion almost three years ago.
Today Virginia companies ship $36 billion in goods and services overseas annually, and McAuliffe has made 19 trade missions aimed at tapping new consumers — 95 percent of whom live outside the United States. He has greeted so many foreign ambassadors in Richmond that he likes to joke, “It’s like the U.N. down there.”
Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry said McAuliffe is “all in.”
“I would be surprised if there were any more-pro-trade Democratic governor in America,” said Todd Haymore, the secretary.
McAuliffe’s latest play for jobs centers on the TPP, a trade deal the Obama administration negotiated with 11 Pacific Rim countries that would reduce the tariffs some countries pay on goods exported to the United States and, supporters say, give Washington greater influence in Asia.
If Congress does not act on the deal, China will step in and make its own agreement with the nations to the detriment of American workers, TPP boosters say.
McAuliffe said it may have been wishful thinking that led him to say on Tuesday that Clinton would reverse course on the TPP if she won the election.
“Yes. Listen, she was in support of it. There were specific things in it she wants fixed,” he told Politico in an interview after praising Clinton from the stage at the Democratic National Convention.
In the Post interview Friday, he said: “But it’s not going to happen. She’s already made up her mind. This is going to ride on the president’s shoulders.”
As newly installed chairman of the National Governors Association, McAuliffe held a news conference last week in Des Moines with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, Obama’s chief pitchman on the TPP.
Also participating were Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat — governors from the kind of agriculture-rich states that supporters say would benefit most from the TPP. Virginia fits into that category, too.
In the first five minutes of his first State of the Commonwealth address, McAuliffe said he wanted to make Virginia the East Coast capital for agriculture and forestry. At the time, it was third behind Georgia and North Carolina; today it has overtaken North Carolina.
“He is uniquely positioned to be successful at it,” said Maurice Jones, Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade. “Why? Because he knows everybody everywhere.”
McAuliffe formed many of those international relationships traveling the world with President Bill Clinton, with whom he remains close.
In fact, McAuliffe is so tight with the Clintons, some wonder whether his TPP gaffe wasn’t a strategic move designed to reassure moderates, business leaders and even Republicans that free trade is here to stay. (McAuliffe rejected that theory outright.)
“This is someone they have trusted for a long time and someone who’s been very central to their political lives,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University and a fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “It’s not inconceivable that this is part of the campaign — let him take the heat. . . . But the message is out there.”
As free trade Democrats, McAuliffe and the Clintons have been sensitive to the costs of the globalized economy and recognize a gray area between protecting labor and the environment and spurring growth, he said.
But in an election year, politics tend to be reduced to black and white.
“When you have that situation when you’re being forced to move in one direction, part of that answer is to have surrogates say, ‘Well, we’ll see,’ and create some doubt,” Zelizer said.
Republicans, at least, weren’t buying McAuliffe’s explanation and sought to capitalize on the perception among many that Clinton says one thing and does another.
“At this point, does #TPP stand for Terry Phlip-Phlop?” the Virginia GOP tweeted.
At the Democratic convention, “No TPP” buttons were ubiquitous among Clinton and Sanders supporters, and the message became a mantra for protesters.
Clinton understood. In accepting the presidential nomination, she urged voters to side with her in part because she would look out for American workers.
“If you believe that we should say no to unfair trade deals . . . that we should stand up to China . . . that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and homegrown manufacturers,” she said, “join us.”
Twelve feet from the podium, a sweaty McAuliffe, shirtsleeves rolled up, grinned widely and joyfully waved an American flag to the tune of “Hill-a-ry” chants.
He said later, “I had the best seat in the house.”