Throughout modern history, Americans tend to turn inward during times of economic insecurity. It’s easy to blame people from other parts of the world for our own troubles, and it’s convenient for politicians of both parties to stoke those fears for their gain. In recent years, this brand of isolationism has been most visible in widespread Republican opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. But as Barack Obama’s sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade legislation comes closer to a vote on Capitol Hill, it appears that Democrats can be determined wall-builders too.
Recent vote counts show that only a dozen or so of the 188 House Democrats are currently supporting Mr. Obama’s trade bill. Nancy Pelosi is opposing the bill. Hillary Clinton is uncommitted. And organized labor is threatening to campaign against any Democrat who signs on in support of one of the Democratic president’s top economic priorities.
The trade bill is not dead by any means. Bill Clinton achieved a last-minute rescue of the North American Free Trade Agreement under similarly dire circumstances in the 1990s. But Mr. Clinton’s victory came during his first year in office, not at the tail end of his second term. Congress was a much less polarized place then, with much larger numbers of centrists in both parties. And Mr. Clinton’s preternatural people skills allowed him to maintain much closer relationships on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue than the more remote Mr. Obama has.
This isn’t meant to be a partisan screed against Democrats. As I noted earlier, Republicans have long devoted an overabundance of energy and vitriol in their efforts to defeat immigration reform under both Presidents Bush and Obama. Both parties are equally culpable for creating a political environment in which engagement with the rest of the world–whether in economic or human terms–is cause for alarm rather than celebration.
Presidents tend to see the benefits of engaging globally. But neither Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama have been able to pry their own parties away from the fears of their respective ideological bases. The new crop of Republican presidential candidates–with only a few commendable exceptions–compete to see who can position himself as the most ardent foe of a naturalization and legalization process. The combination of Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley on the campaign trail–along with the just-off-the-trail presence of Elizabeth Warren–seems to have convinced Mrs. Clinton that staying out of this trade fight is her safest path forward.
More discouraging than the hyper-polarization that undermines U.S. efforts to engage globally is the predictable response to that gridlock. On a political landscape dominated by selective outrage, Democrats will attack Republicans for kowtowing to the nativism of their party’s conservative base. Republicans will assault Democrats for caving to the paranoia of their party’s liberal extremists.
Both sets of accusations will be correct. And the walls separating the U.S. from the rest of the world will continue to grow.
Dan Schnur is director of the University of Southern California’s Unruh Institute of Politics and was communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. He is on Twitter: @DanSchnur.