Shadow Government

The Rocky Road to Passing Trade Promotion Authority

The bipartisan push for passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is akin to epic dramas where competing leaders set aside their quarrels to join forces when the fate of the realm is in the balance. President Barack Obama and Republicans have locked arms to break down barriers that threaten our economic vitality and global leadership. ...

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The bipartisan push for passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is akin to epic dramas where competing leaders set aside their quarrels to join forces when the fate of the realm is in the balance. President Barack Obama and Republicans have locked arms to break down barriers that threaten our economic vitality and global leadership. Both the president and congressional leaders must skillfully outmaneuver undermining forces on each of their flanks to achieve victory.

For 75 years, America has heeded past lessons that rejecting the benefits of trade prolongs economic misery. The Smoot-Hawley Tariffs in 1930 sparked retaliatory duties that drove a drastic reduction in U.S. exports that deepened and lengthened the Great Depression. We cannot let their protectionist successors similarly prolong the Great Recession.

President Obama joins an unbroken string of Democratic presidents that have successfully championed trade. Both he and Republicans face hurdles in delivering the votes necessary to extend this record.

Republicans must overcome dissenters in their ranks that are loathe to grant this president any more authority or perceive a hidden plot to open up immigration.

The president must surmount determined opposition within his party. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), fabricates more trade monsters than a Halloween costume factory. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is being bipartisan in his own unique way: opposing Obama with the same zeal that he opposed Republican presidents.

While Republicans will have to carry most of the water on this deal, Democratic votes will be pivotal. President Bill Clinton mustered 102 Democrat votes for the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Obama is no Bill Clinton. Sadly, given her absence from this historic trade debate, neither is Hillary Clinton.

With 432 House seats now filled, 217 votes will be needed in the House. Recent estimates suggest that only 180 to 200 of the 244 Republicans can be counted on for support. Fewer than 20 Democrats in the House have backed TPA so far, leaving its fate in question.

With Reid’s challenges in the Senate, 60 votes will be required to overcome procedural hurdles. If all 54 Republicans stick together against Reid’s challenge, they will need at least six Democrat votes. Even though seven Democrats supported TPA in committee, most are not saying if they will reject Reid’s leadership and vote to allow the bill to proceed to the Senate floor.

With all of that math in mind, it’s essential to remember they key components of assembling for battle on any issue: determining they paramount questions of what, where, who, and how in such a way that your answer is the best conclusion for crucial audiences to draw.

What

Those who define the question at hand win political contests. Answering the other side’s question is playing on their turf. You must establish the supremacy of your question.

Opponents of trade liberalization try to make the question some particular detail of the deal. The recent refrain of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is typical, “I tell everybody the same thing: I’m pro-trade, but…” The general rule in politics is to ignore everything before a “but.”

Obama has rightly focused on taking the debate to a higher level, asserting that no matter the imperfections of this deal, the alternative is far worse.

His question from the State of the Union frames the issue well, “as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.”

The president has also rightly kept the focus on how trade benefits America’s workers and the middle class.

Where

Today’s contentiousness requires a strong outside game, speaking out publically about the merits of a deal, and a dedicated inside game through individual meetings with undecided members. This president prefers the former to the latter, but in this instance both are essential.

Who

United States Trade Representative Michael Froman has assured me that regular cabinet huddles are occurring on TPA and the entire administration’s shoulder is pressed to the wheel. That is excellent, but no substitute for presidential leadership.

Clearly Republican leadership and the coalition of groups that have historically advocated for trade must also be fully engaged if the coalition resisting passage is to be overcome.

How

Obama’s bold public statements rejecting determined opposition from within his own party are an essential element of building public support. His discussions with House and Senate members on the fence at the White House reflect this commitment to aggressively build Congressional approval. It must continue.

America’s embrace of trade following World War II drove its rise to global leadership. Continuing to push for trade liberalization is essential to preserving our ability to continue to be the stabilizing force that averts anarchy.

Completing pending trade agreements in both Asia and Europe would strengthen each region’s commitment to the global order and boost our allies’ economic prospects, while boosting opportunities for American workers, our middle class. Not passing these accords would be seen as America raising a white flag. May this epic saga instead have a happy ending!

 Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He was previously president of the University of North Dakota, has served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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