The continuing events in Washington surrounding the fast-track legislation that will define the rules of foreign trade are a picture-perfect illustration of why so many Americans are disillusioned with Washington, why Bernie Sanders is surging in the campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, why Hillary Clinton has a problem with many voters who do not trust her, and why Republicans have won control of the House and Senate during the first six years of the Obama presidency.
What happened in Washington this week on trade? And what does it tell us about President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and why the Sanders surge has confounded Democratic political insiders and their fellow insiders in the mainstream media?
From the beginning of the trade debate until today, Mr. Sanders has taken clear and unequivocal positions in opposition to the fast-track trade legislation as currently written and in favor of powerful and dramatic plans to create large numbers of new American jobs.
After Democrats in Congress rose a week ago and at first derailed the fast-moving train for fast-track trade legislation, Mr. Obama had a golden opportunity to pursue a grand compromise that would tie trade legislation to a powerful and historic jobs programs to create millions of high-paying American jobs rebuilding our roads, ports, bridges and schools.
Did he do so? No. The president chose instead to make a callous, calculated—and what he thought was clever—deal with conservative Republicans to pass the fast-track trade legislation over the objection and opposition of a large majority of House Democrats.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton—who has spent the last few months talking about her support for American workers but refusing to take any position on the trade legislation pending before Congress—had a golden opportunity to publicly say the fast-track legislation should not have been passed by the House of Representatives until reasonable changes were made in the bill and a dramatic jobs bill was included in the plan to remedy the danger to workers whose jobs may be lost by future trade agreements.
Did she do so? No. Ms. Clinton continued to talk the liberal talk about fighting for workers but continued to refuse to fight the progressive fight to improve the bill and create the new jobs.
While Mr. Sanders was talking the progressive talk, and fighting the progressive fight, Mr. Obama was insulting liberals publicly about trade and making side-deals with conservative Republicans to pass his program, while Ms. Clinton was talking the progressive talk while walking a far different walk that was described as seeking the widest possible wiggle room to combine progressive rhetoric with refusing to take positions that would antagonize campaign donors.
My message to President Obama is this: Your legacy will not be judged by what trade bill passes but whether the trade agreements you negotiate create or destroy more jobs. You should be allied with progressives and not insulting them.
My message to Hillary Clinton is this: Your prospects for the presidency will be enhanced if you fight like a lioness for the values of progressives because the path to the presidency is by leading and not wiggling.
What infuriates many liberals and the strongest supporters of labor—and many of them are infuriated by the passage of track-track trade legislation in the House on Thursday—is that they are often pandered to, and then insulted by, those they believe should be their friends.
While Bernie Sanders was fighting like hell for their cause and their interests, President Obama, as I recently wrote in the Observer, was insulting leading progressives such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) by falsely claiming they do not know what they are talking about on trade—which they damn well do—and by falsely claiming they are taking their positions for workers not because they believe in them but for political reasons—a slander unworthy of any president speaking of members of his own party and particularly unworthy of this president speaking of progressive Democrats.
While these insults from the president were flowing, Mr. Sanders kept fighting for their cause and Ms. Clinton—whose campaign manager appeared on a talk show last Sunday denying she has a problem with voters who do not trust her—kept walking the walk of wiggle room and taking no position on the legislation House Democrats were fighting to defeat or change before it passed the House on Thursday.
Of the three leading Democrats I describe here, on the great debate about foreign trade in Washington, Bernie Sanders—and only Bernie Sanders—took a clear and unequivocal position of principle without the ifs, ands, buts, wiggles and insults that true progressives had to put up with as they fought their fight for workers on the floor of Congress.
Ms. Clinton campaigns as though she would be a fighter but on the great issue of trade that affects millions of American jobs, Bernie Sanders was the fighter while Hillary Clinton was the wiggler, while Barack Obama insulted progressives and made his deal with conservatives.
Democratic insiders often become angry with me when I write these kinds of columns. But I remind them that after more than six years of Obama, Democrats lost control of the House and Senate, and lost a large number of governors and state legislators who were defeated by Republicans. When Democrats fail to fight for great causes, many Democratic liberal voters—in my opinion wrongly—stay home on Election Day while conservative voters surge to the polls.
Bernie Sanders is the antidote to the failure to fight for high principle and demonstrate political courage that plagues too many Democrats today. He is the leading conviction politician on the Democratic side of the presidential campaign.
I do not expect Hillary Clinton to be a carbon copy of Bernie Sanders, but I do suggest that if she wants to win the trust of voters as the fighter she claims to be she has to help wage the fight and not constantly wage the wiggle.
Meanwhile Bernie Sanders battles on, to his eternal credit, inspiring large numbers of citizens, to their eternal credit, who believe that the land we love should be a place where dreams come true for all, not some, and the Democratic party should be a place where leaders wage noble fights with real life deeds, not merely fine sounding words.
Brent Budowsky formerly served as policy aide to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex) and Legislative Director to Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), then Chief Deputy Majority Whip. He holds a law degree from Catholic University, and an LL.M. degree from the London School of Economics and writes a weekly column for The Hill. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.