Pro-trade Democrats call Labor’s bluff
Organized labor made a lot of political threats on trade. So far, they’ve flaked on them all.
Just ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who Tuesday clocked an easy win in Florida over the most Bernie Sanders-identified primary challenger in the country — even after her booting as Democratic National Committee chair. She voted to give the president fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals as a precursor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and despite all the noise in Washington, every union in her district still endorsed her.
Cutting against what has quickly become the political conventional wisdom that Sanders and Donald Trump were propelled by widespread opposition to new trade deals, of the 28 House Democrats who were targeted by organized labor and the progressive base for supporting fast-track, Wasserman Schultz is now the 28th who either skated through a primary challenge or didn’t get one at all.
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), the man the AFL-CIO promised to make an example of for supporting fast-track last spring? He did better in this year’s primary than he’s ever done before, in a race happening as his father pleaded guilty to illegally funneling money to his campaigns. (Two weeks ago, though, the anti-TPP group Fight for the Future did show up with what it called “a 25-foot inflatable protest blimp” outside his office in Sacramento.)
And Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, the leader of the New Democrats who made up most of the trade votes, drew a single-issue trade primary challenge from retired teacher Myron Buchholz. Kind eviscerated Buchholz in the Aug. 9 primary with 81.25 percent of the vote.
“They’re liars,” Buchholz said of the labor leaders who promised to support him. “The Communication Workers of America sent me a letter and no money. The AFL-CIO shut me out completely.”
Buchholz said he begged. After receiving a mailer from the state AFL-CIO addressed to his late wife, an AFSCME member, with an attached postcard to send to Kind’s office to protest his fast-track vote, he says he told the union’s state director, “’I’m in this race because of that.’ And I got no support: Not an email, not a tweet, not a thing.”
“Other than the uncomfortable instances, people protesting, getting in my face — at the electoral box, it had very little impact,” Kind added. “There is a very strong vocal minority that knows how to get attention, but I think the impact on the general electorate has been pretty minimal.”
That’s been true on the other side of the aisle too. For all the headlines that went to Paul Ryan’s anti-trade-focused, Trump-connected primary challenger on the other side of Wisconsin, the House speaker got 84 percent of the vote.
Bill Samuel, government affairs director for the AFL-CIO, said that thinking just in terms of winning and losing elections is misreading both the fight and what’s come of it.
“The point here was not to punish members of Congress and replace them. It’s to win the debate and ultimately the vote. And I think we are winning,” Samuel said, pointing out how skeptical most insiders are that there will be a TPP vote at all, and that not even all the 28 fast-track supporters have pledged to be yeses if it comes up.
Jim Dean, chairman of the left-activist group Democracy for America, promised last year that “we will actively search for opportunities to primary you with a real Democrat.”
In an interview Tuesday, Dean insisted he didn’t mean this with any sort of set time frame and that the challenge could come in 2018 or maybe another election cycle down the road.
Asked why politicians should view that any more seriously, Dean instead started talking about how early in the cycle the fast-track vote was, the attention the issue received in the presidential race and the obstacles thrown in the way of passing TPP.
“I’m pleased with this outcome,” Dean said.
But as for candidates whose races they mattered in? “I don’t have a head count for you.”
Privately, many involved with the on-the-ground politics say these are just convenient excuses.
“The reality is that this is not as devastating a trade deal as some of the others have been, and ultimately card check, Fight for $15 and immigration reform are a lot more important than biologics — and the unions know that too,” said a Democratic consultant working on several House races where trade has become an issue.
Many Democrats see a harsher reality for these advocates: The anti-trade energy that Trump and Sanders got credit for tapping is less about a sudden leftward or isolationist lurch and more about overall results camouflaging ignorance about TPP outside of Washington and the reality that younger, more educated voters across parties favor open trade by wide margins.
But labor’s failure to deliver on its threats doesn’t seem to have made politicians any less fearful of the movement’s power. Spokespeople for several members who were targeted said their bosses weren’t available to talk about the threats, though they’d be happy to talk about other topics. Bera’s press secretary didn’t respond at all to a week’s worth of attempts to get him on the phone.
And the White House continues to be on edge, with President Barack Obama nervously pushing for the deal to move in the lame-duck session. Not making a convention fight on TPP was the one request the president made of Sanders when they met in the Oval Office in June at the end of the primaries, according to people familiar with the meeting, and aides conveyed a similar message to Wasserman Schultz about the party platform when she was still guiding it as chair.
It worked: Sanders toned down his public rhetoric on TPP, though many of his supporters still went to the convention floor in Philadelphia holding anti-TPP signs. The platform contains watchful language about trade deals, but not the specific condemnation of the TPP that the West Wing dreaded.
Though he hasn’t needed to all that often, Obama has made good on his promise last year to commit himself to helping any member who faced political trouble for backing trade, recording robocalls for Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), as well as Reps. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), Brad Ashford (D-Neb.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). Kilmer also got a TV ad from Obama, and Kind got a mailer with Obama’s endorsement.
Anti-trade protesters hounded Kilmer for days last spring along his route to take his young children to school, but this year he hit 58 percent in his primary. The other Democrat running in Kilmer’s district got 2 percent.
Then again, Fight for the Future brought its blimp to Kilmer’s and fellow Washington Rep. Denny Heck’s district offices on Tuesday, this time joined by an inflatable elephant.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), who enraged anti-trade forces by flipping from no to yes on fast-track, didn’t draw a primary challenger at all.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) was threatened with a million dollars being spent against him in his primary, and, if he won, another million in the general. None of that materialized either.
“I was expecting it,” Peters said, speculating about why nothing arrived. “It may have been a little bit of a heat of the moment; it may have been that they felt that they had bigger fish to fry, that they turned to Trump. I don’t know.”
That blimp, though, did show up outside his district office, too, at the beginning of August. But an Obama robocall also showed up during his primary.
Some relationships remain broken, Peters said, noting the California labor leader who called him last year to warn him that labor would go after his seat and Bera’s to teach people a lesson. Peters said he hasn’t talked with that leader since the end of the phone call.
But Peters said the work that he put in both with labor groups and with voters more widely to explain his position, and why he thought it was right for San Diego, has as much to do with why he didn’t run into trouble as labor and left-leaning groups not showing up.
“This is a little bit of a signal that voters appreciate leadership, and you won’t be punished for taking a vote that people disagree with if they understand that you thought about it,” Peters said, adding that the case he’s now been making to his colleagues about TPP in the lame duck — “I’ve already been goading them,” he said — is that the presidential election has reflected disgust with how D.C. does (or doesn’t) do business.
As far as political consequences, Kind said he’s got a clearer message to any House Democrat who’s agonizing over joining the coalition to provide enough votes along with the Republicans to put TPP on Obama’s desk before he leaves.
“This is survivable,” Kind said. “Definitely survivable.”
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
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