For months after she launched her campaign last April, Hillary Clinton faced internal pressure from her Brooklyn headquarters to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal she helped craft as secretary of State. Both of her Democratic opponents at the time had quickly rejected the deal, and Clinton’s delay made it seem as though she was avoiding a difficult political decision. But Clinton insisted on holding out until she read the final details of the plan, sources said.
In October, citing last-minute loopholes that would favor China and the lack of currency manipulation enforcement, Clinton ultimately came out against the deal.
At the time, her opposition to the fine print was ridiculed as a classic Clintonian flip-flop. But now, Democratic strategists said, her carefully nuanced position on trade actually helped her win the industrial Midwest — a string of wins Tuesday night that all but ensure Clinton will become the Democratic nominee.
Clinton’s position of supporting trade deals in general but rejecting the current version of a deal based on specific objections, her campaign said, was more in line with the position of a majority of Democratic voters today than Sanders’ blanket moral opposition to trade deals overall.
It also helped to insulate her from attacks from Sanders and the left — but the bigger question remains of whether it will protect her in a potential fall matchup against Donald Trump, who blames free-trade deals for gutting the US economy.
“Voters agree that we have to compete and win in a global economy and that means we have to make things in the United States that we can sell to 95 percent of the world’s consumers who happen to live outside of the United States,” said Clinton’s senior strategist, Joel Benenson. “What the data from the exit polls says is these voters were more aligned with her fundamental view of trade.”
Indeed, in planning on how to beat Sanders in the Rust Belt, Clinton’s campaign also made an early calculation that a broader economic message would ultimately win out over a debate about trade.
Clinton’s strategy for winning the industrial Midwest, advisers said, began in the ballroom at Caesars Palace the afternoon after her Nevada victory. There, surrounded by casino workers, she began talking about “breaking down barriers for all” and the importance of competing in a global economy — a message targeting manufacturing workers in the Rust Belt.
“If we open our hearts to the families of coal country and Indian country, if we listen to the hopes and heartaches of hardworking people across America,” she said last month in Nevada, “it’s clear there is so much more to be done. The truth is, we aren’t a single-issue country. … Some country is going to be the clean energy superpower of the 21st century, it’s probably going to be China, Germany or us, and I want it to be us.”
Last Tuesday, that strategy appeared to have worked: Clinton won a 13-point victory in Ohio, followed by wins by slimmer margins in Illinois and Missouri. About 75 percent of Ohio Democrats said they were somewhat worried or very worried about the economy, and 53 percent said they believed that trade costs American jobs rather than helped to create them, according to exit polls. Still, among those voters, Clinton beat Sanders 53 percent to 46 percent.
And 39 percent of Ohio voters said the issue that mattered most to them was jobs and the economy. Among those voters, Clinton beat Sanders 57 percent to 40 percent.
Now, centrist Democrats are hailing the wins across the Midwest as an overturning of conventional wisdom about the potency of the trade issue in Democratic politics.
“What this Midwest sweep showed,” said Jonathan Cowan, a former Clinton administration official who is president of the moderate think tank Third Way, “is that the trade issue in a Democratic primary has been dramatically overhyped. Clinton demonstrated she was the one who would restore the basic again for growth. That has big implications for the party and governing and for the fall.”
In the six days leading up to the primaries in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, Sanders ran television ads highlighting the job losses associated with NAFTA, TPP and “special trade status with China.” Without naming Clinton, the ad stated that “only one candidate has opposed every disastrous trade deal: Bernie Sanders.”
In speeches, Sanders hammered her as a candidate who flip-flopped on TPP, which he said could cost the country half-a-million jobs.
Clinton’s ads, in contrast, focused on dealing with the rapidly escalating prices of prescription drugs, and on creating jobs. In one ad, she touted her plans for tax credits for companies that create new manufacturing jobs and investments in clean energy jobs. While she also talked up her opposition to TPP while campaigning, she did not want to run as an anti-trade candidate. At an MSNBC Town Hall taped in Illinois on Monday, for instance, Clinton acknowledged that “you have to trade with the rest of the world” given the only 5 percent of the world’s population live in the United States.
Another aspect of how Clinton won the Midwest was overcompensating in terms of her campaign schedule after an unexpected loss in Michigan. Clinton campaign operatives felt that even though Michigan was a narrow defeat — they lost by 17,000 votes — it caused them to lose the narrative on a night they netted more delegates because of a big win in Mississippi. Clinton herself acknowledged that she didn’t campaign enough in all parts of the state in Michigan, sources inside the campaign said, and didn’t engage in enough local media. Their solution, they said, was to plan a rigorous series of events in the Midwestern states that followed.
The Sanders campaign also gave Clinton a free lane in North Carolina and Florida, where he did not begin spending money or campaigning until shortly before the primaries. That allowed Clinton to concentrate more on the Midwest.
Sanders senior strategist Tad Devine denied that his campaign’s problem was its intensive focus on opposing trade deals — he said it would have worked with more time. “We went on TV in Michigan three-and-a-half weeks out,” Devine said of the state Sanders won in an upset last week. “We closed with a whole week of advertising on trade. In Illinois and Missouri, we didn’t have two weeks worth of TV; we only had six days worth of TV.”
Clinton operatives said they leaned into her free-trade position and were not intimidated by Sanders’ attacks. But labor leaders and elected officials from the Midwest credited Clinton’s ultimate opposition to TPP — even if it was criticized at the time — as a key to taking the sting out of Sanders’ attacks.
“I absolutely think that her opposition to TPP was an important factor on why she won those states,” said Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, which has yet to offer an endorsement in the race. “Any candidate who supported bad trade deals would have a difficult time earning the support of working people.”
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan agreed: “Her vote against CAFTA [the Central American Free Trade Agreement], her being out against TPP, were important. That certainly did help her, but that’s half the loaf.”
The other half: “She won because her economic message is about the future, about how we throw gasoline on the good economic things that are happening, as opposed to just talking about the bad things. The young people in the industrial Midwest went to other places where the grass is greener. They want to come back home.”
Clinton instead pushed back on Sanders’ opposition to the Export-Import Bank, and doubled down on the idea that America needs to compete and win in the global economy.
“We engaged with him on trade more forcefully,” Benenson said. In the end, “I guess he came off as an economic isolationist.”
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