President Obama visits Vietnam’s commercial hub and touts the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, widely expected to benefit Vietnam, which does $45 billion in annual trade with the United States. (Reuters)
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

This week, as President Obama again makes the case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gave his most protectionist campaign speech yet. It was a full-throated defense of protectionism in which he cited George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as protectionists, and warned that Hillary Clinton, if elected, would pass the TPP. I wish.

That Clinton and Trump both now oppose the TPP highlights the overwhelmingly protectionist rhetoric that the 2016 presidential campaign has produced. And that fact in itself is now being used by some commentators to argue against ratification by Congress in the post-election lame-duck session. Former congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a TPP opponent, made this case in the Boston Globe earlier this week:

The plan to delay [voting on TPP until the 2016 lame-duck session] came before the presidential primaries, in which more than 50 million people voted. Opposition to TPP was one of the few issues that most of the candidates agreed on this year. And strong opposition to the deal was not just a stand-alone position on one specific issue. It was one of the most important manifestations of a profound repudiation of what voters saw as a deeply unfair economic system, in which trade has played a significant role.

What impact should this overwhelming verdict have on the plan to ratify the pact in the post-election session? I can sum it up in six letters: RIP, TPP. …

The widespread anti-TPP sentiment that was so prominent in the presidential primaries will play a similar role in congressional races. Pressure on Democrats to support their president will be somewhat diluted by their ability to claim solidarity with their nominee — whose anti-TPP stance will remain clear. Republicans who have voted pro-trade in accord with a longstanding party position will feel pressure to align with their nominee, especially in close races where their Democratic opponents take the same — i.e., popular — side of the issue as the head of their ticket.

In Poltico, Paul Blustein makes a kindred argument:

Of all the messages emanating from the American electorate in the 2016 campaign, popular hostility toward trade agreements is one of the most resounding. It is also perhaps the only grievance that unites left and right.

Donald Trump’s success in storming his way toward the Republican presidential nomination is due in no small part to the derision he routinely heaps on trade deals the United States has struck with other countries. Likewise, Bernie Sanders’ attacks on trade agreements help fuel his populist insurgency, forcing Hillary Clinton to back away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the pact among 12 Pacific Rim countries that she once championed as secretary of state. …

Trump and Sanders are delivering a double-barreled message from across the political spectrum, one that is deeply felt in American society and unlikely to go away soon. Thus the voters’ uprising of 2016 warrants more than the oft-repeated bromides about the virtues of economic integration. The politics of trade has changed in a profound way, especially now that the Republican Party — until recently, led by ardent free-traders and a reliable supplier of congressional votes for trade agreements — has shown that its grass-roots voters will rally to a candidate who scorns the old orthodoxy.

Now, Frank and Blustein might very well be proven correct about the political math. I’ve been dubious about TPP’s chances in Congress for a while. And it’s certainly interesting — and by “interesting,” I mean, “humiliating to his free-trade intellectual position” — to see how House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) reacted to Trump’s protectionist cri de coeur Wednesday:

That said, Frank and Blustein are asserting facts not in evidence when it comes to public opinion, TPP and free trade. As longtime readers of Spoiler Alerts are aware, there is no firm evidence of shift in public opinion toward protectionism. Indeed, the Progressive Policy Institute’s Ed Gerwin and Will Marshall argued this week that voters in key swing states have pretty positive attitudes toward trade.

As for whether the 2016 campaign represents an implicit referendum on TPP, color me unconvinced. The truth about U.S. public opinion toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership is that, by and large, most Americans have no opinion about it because they have no idea what it is. Very little polling about TPP has been done this year. The latest poll of TPP I could find was from a March 2016 Morning Consult survey. And during the heat of the 2016 presidential primaries, what did Morning Consult find?

Of the more than 10,000 registered voters who responded to a March 11-16 Morning Consult survey on trade policy, 29 percent oppose TPP while 26 percent support the deal. But 45 percent say they don’t have an opinion or didn’t know how to respond.

A total of 72 percent of those surveyed either hadn’t heard of the deal, or had heard “not much” about it. 

I can’t spin these numbers and say there’s broad support for TPP, but protectionists can’t claim there is broad-based opposition to TPP either. Instead, there’s broad-based rational ignorance. And that is not a mandate to reject the TPP.

As U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, congressional suspicion of TPP isn’t really about TPP:

The fact is you don’t get a vote on automation, on whether there’s going to be a new generation of computers or robots that might replace your job. You don’t really get to vote on globalization. It’s a factor of the containerization of shipping, the spread of broadband, the integration of economies like China and Eastern Europe that used to be closed and are now part of the global economy.

You do get a vote on trade agreements. So trade agreements become the vessel into which people pour their very legitimate concerns about job security, wage stagnation and income inequality.

Even if the Trans-Pacific Partnership passes, it might be the last trade deal of its kind that gets through Congress. And while I support TPP, I’m also keenly aware that the scrambled politics of trade deals means that there needs to be a deep rethink on how these pacts get negotiated in the future.

Still, anyone who tells you that the 2016 campaign undercuts TPP’s legitimacy is selling you something based on an awfully dubious premise.