Hillary Clinton has found herself in the middle of a fight within the U.S. Democratic Party over the Pacific Rim trade pact, between President Barack Obama, who backs the deal, and opponents whose help is crucial to her White House bid.
A showdown over trade is expected on Friday and Saturday when Democratic officials meet in Orlando, Florida, to negotiate language for the party’s 2016 platform, which sets policy priorities intended to guide campaign messages in the Nov. 8 election.
Different factions of the party are deadlocked over platform language on the sweeping Trans Pacific Partnership, which Obama hopes to push through the U.S. Congress later this year.
The current draft, which will be ratified at the July 25-28 Democratic convention in Philadelphia, acknowledges “a diversity of views” over the TPP.
While the platform is not binding for candidates, it is a symbol of a party’s core values.
Labor unions and other TPP critics have called for a clear condemnation of the pact, which they fear could lead to steep U.S. job losses in manufacturing. But some Democrats say that would risk undercutting Obama.
U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a Clinton appointee to the platform committee, told the Washington Post that while he had a long history of opposing trade pacts, he did not want Democrats on the other side of the issue to think they are not important.
Gutierrez also said he thought “disregarding the position of the president of the United States” was not right.
The intra-party rift has created a quandary for Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee. She has staked out opposition to the TPP during her campaign after supporting it while she was secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has accused her of waffling on trade. Trump has strongly condemned the deal, calling it “horrible.”
If Clinton embraces platform language condemning the TPP, it would please unions while causing difficulties for Obama, one of her most enthusiastic supporters.
Moreover, if the platform committee cannot come up with language that satisfies Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont who had also sought the nomination and still wields considerable clout, the fight might drag into the Philadelphia convention and create a messy spectacle where Democrats will formally nominate Clinton for the White House.
Labor unions told the Clinton campaign of their frustrations in a closed-door meeting on June 30. One of a series of occasional sessions to update unions supporting her on campaign staffing, logistics and other issues, it concluded with a brief question-and-answer session where AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka asked about the pact.
“The (platform’s) language now is unacceptable,” Hasan Solomon, the legislative director of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, told Reuters. The machinists were the first industrial union to endorse Clinton and remain strong backers of her candidacy.
Union activists aligned with Sanders were even more blunt.
“When I saw the language, my reaction was: ‘What are they thinking?’” said Rafael Navar, national political director for the Communications Workers of America, which endorsed Sanders.
“The only way to challenge Trump’s appeal to millions of working-class voters in critical swing states is to be 100 percent crystal clear on opposing TPP and other job-killing trade deals.”
Many union activists also voiced their opposition to the deal to Paul Booth, executive assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, at a private June 1 meeting hosted by the AFL-CIO. Booth is among the platform drafting committee members suggested by Clinton.
To push for changes to the TPP platform language, Sanders has encouraged his millions of supporters in emails and texts to register their dissatisfaction.
But Obama’s support for the deal makes it hard for the party to come out against it too forcefully, said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic political consultant with the Raben Group.
Meanwhile, the platform committee expects more amendments to be offered in Orlando.
“The point of this process,” said committee spokeswoman Dana Vickers Shelley, “is to hear what people’s concerns are.”
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Caren Bohan and Lisa Von Ahn)