Things have changed a little bit since I started writing this post (i.e., the "demise" assessment may or may not be a bit premature). But, since the outcome is still uncertain, let's consider the two lessons anyway. One is poignant, and the other is hopeful. Let's start with the former.
The seemingly (for now) end of the joint quest by President Obama and congressional Republicans to give the president "fast-track" authority to negotiate a trade treaty among twelve nations bordering the Pacific Ocean is being framed as a defeat for both the President and the leadership of the current Congress. Viewed in the context of the who's-up-who's down analysis that pervades what passes for media coverage in our county, that's fair enough. If we had real media coverage of this debacle, we would have commentators point out that the Republican support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (or TPP, for short) illustrates what is truly important to Republicans.
Paired with their reflexive opposition to giving the President similar authority to negotiate a nuclear treaty with Iran, we see that the GOP is not motivated by anything that could be considered a matter of principle. After all, both the TPP and the Iran agreement offer Congress chances to surrender their constitutional authority over presidential treaties and other executive agreements with other nations. So why are they opposed to one, but in favor of another? In a word, power; their campaign contributors hate the Iran deal but love TPP, for transparently self-serving reasons.
Obama, had he pushed for CIR, might not have had this problem. He would have shown that he was willing and able to take the political capital he had earned by being re-elected, and spent it to achieve precisely the sort of legacy legislation second-term Presidents hunger to get in order to cement their place in history, AND satisfy the needs and concerns of a significant portion of his personal coalition and his party. And please, Mr. President, don't tell me you couldn't have done it. All it would have taken was a willingness to push the Republicans out of their comfort zone. And, perhaps, out of yours, which perhaps was the problem. Tell the GOP that either they work with you to address all of the nation's immigration needs, or you'll start releasing all but the most dangerous detainees from immigration detention centers. You'll encourage U.S. attorneys across the country practicing before immigration courts to offer potential deportees waivers allowing them to stay, if the evidence supports doing so. You're the President of the United States. All you had to do was act like it.
But you didn't. And we lost CIR, and perhaps our last best chance to get it for a very long time. And, as a consequence, thousands of detainees are suffering in substandard facilities--many of them women and children, who pose no threat to the community and could be monitored without confinement. This is infuriating to your supporters, Mr. President, and should be. This is not change we can believe in. In fact, it's change for the worse. It's why people who should support you and other Democrats sat on their hands, and their right to vote, last November. And it's why they're fighting you now on fast-track. Your claims that you'll use the authority given to you to negotiate a tough deal ring hollow with progressives across the county. They saw how "tough" you were on immigration, Mr. President. I'm sorry, but you've earned our lack of respect. (And this doesn't even being to get into the fact that your supporters aren't even being allowed to read the text of the "fast-track" legislation in the first place.)
Obama's place in history is no doubt secure anyway, for a number of reasons. But he could have both cemented and expanded upon it by spending his political capital on CIR. He would have earned the respect of progressives who might then have been willing to take seriously his pledge to fight hard for a fair version of TPP. Now, both may be lost.
So much for poignance. Where's the hope?
It lies in the union of Tea Partiers and progressives in the House of Representatives in stopping "fast track" in its tracks. For perhaps the first time, these two groups voted the same way on a major economic issue, having made a similar assessment of what was being proposed, and what was at stake for Americans in the outcome. I'm not naive enough to think that this was a deliberate collaboration. But is it completely unreasonable to think that, in this accidental collaboration, the seeds for something more deliberate and lasting could be sown? Something that might lead, for example, to a revival of the Glass-Steagall Act? Or greater rights for workers? Or breaking up "too-big-to-fail" banks? Or taxing risky derivatives transactions that might in turn lead to tax breaks for working families?
I hope not. I pray not. Obama's not going to be President in a little less than two years, and I'm worried about the political landscape once he's gone. Let's hope the current "fast-track" debate ultimately puts America on a "fast-track" toward a better, more progressive future.