Populist Democrats revolt on trade deal

In this March 5, 2014, file photo, the Senate Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Top lawmakers struck a bipartisan agreement on Thursday to allow President Barack Obama to negotiate trade deals subject to a yes-or-no vote from Congress without the possibility of changes. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

BY DANA MILBANK

WASHINGTON — It was another one of those rallies on Capitol Hill where lawmakers line up to take shots at the Obama administration. But this time the lawmakers were all Democrats.

A quartet of senators and a dozen members of the House took the stage in a park across from the Capitol midday Wednesday to join hundreds of steelworkers, union faithful and environmentalists in denouncing President Obama’s bid for fast-track approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

“I’ve never seen a trade agreement that is more secretive than this one,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told the crowd. “What are they hiding? What they’re hiding is a huge shift from democratically elected governments to corporations all over the world, and that’s why we’re fighting.”

“The administration is engaged in new transparency with this agreement — transparency — so I brought a copy,” Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio said, holding up — nothing. “Oh. It’s transparent. You can’t see it.”

Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro protested that “we are headed for the madhouse with this agreement.” Poking the air with her index finger, she added, “I did not come to Congress to give up my constitutional authority to any administration, Democrat or Republican.”

There were cheers in the decidedly Democratic crowd.

Rep. Alan Grayson, the firebrand Florida Democrat, said that “we’ve had, I hate to say this, a sellout government,” and that it doesn’t much matter “who’s in charge, Democrats [or] Republicans.”

Grayson told me after the event that speakers would have been harsher in their words about the Democratic president — they refrained from criticizing Obama by name — but that would have caused “cognitive dissonance” in the Democratic crowd. One of the United Steelworkers officials described Obama as a “shadow” over the event, and he accused Obama of “splitting the Democrats.”

But Obama hasn’t really split the Democrats. They are almost unanimously opposed to him on trade. The upcoming battle over fast-tracking and the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows how dramatically the center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted.

Twenty years ago, half of Senate Democrats and 40 percent of House Democrats voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement. This time, even if Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, signs off on a fast-track deal, proponents say a best-case scenario has them winning only 10 of the 46 Democrats — and an even smaller percentage of House Democrats, despite aggressive lobbying by the usually passive White House.

Part of the change reflects the loss of moderates in Congress, and part is because of empirical experience with NAFTA. But the shift also is indication of the ascendancy of the populist wing of the party, in numbers and, particularly, energy. Obama, not up for re-election, can afford to defy the populists, but future Democratic leaders, including Hillary Clinton, don’t have that luxury.

The populist muscle was on display Wednesday at the rally, hosted by United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, who sprinkled foul language in his introductions of the various speakers. Privately, lawmakers expressed doubts that they could block passage, but publicly they were full of fight.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the Democrats’ populist star, pumped her fist and shouted into the microphone: “No more secret trade deals! Are you ready to fight? No more special deals for multinational corporations! Are you ready to fight?”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is planning a symbolic challenge to Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, warned of a Congress “totally owned by billionaires and their lobbyists.”

American Federation of Government Employees chief J. David Cox proposed they “open up one gigantic can of whoop-ass” on legislators who support the deal.

Cox didn’t propose using whoop-ass on Obama, if only because it’s “a lost battle” with him. But it stung that a Democratic president was siding with Republicans on trade and against the Democratic base.

Fred Rolando, head of the letter carriers union, addressed U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman “and the rest of you at USTR and in the White House: We don’t trust you on this.”

And Grayson demanded they “take back our government” from “the political acrobats and the corporate aristocrats.”

Grayson, after the rally, called Obama’s position “unfortunate” and demoralizing.

“We’ve done this experiment where we try to drift over to the other side and see whether we can win Republican votes,” he said. “We’ve done that experiment just like we’ve done the NAFTA experiment, and both of them have failed.”

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.