WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, progressives were surprised to learn they were "split" on President Obama's trade agenda.
Few issues have galvanized the American left like trade promotion authority, legislation that would pave the way for the administration to fast-track trade negotiations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the trade deal the Obama administration is working tirelessly to make a reality and many Democrats oppose. From senators to the activists that make up the organized left (trade unions, environmentalists, human rights advocates), progressives can't stand the trade deal.
Yet there it was in black and white: "RIFT AMONG PROGRESSIVES EMERGES ON TPP," read a headline in Politico's daily labor and employment tipsheet, Morning Shift. The short item detailed the emergence of the "Progressive Coalition for American Jobs " — a group of "progressives and Democrats committed to leveling the playing field for American workers," according to the coalition's barebones website. The website adds that "it's critical that we give the president trade promotion authority and establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership."
There's something weird about the group, though: No one in the Washington, D.C., progressive community seems to have ever heard of them before.
"Who are they? Are they getting paid? And this group will convince anybody of what?" asked Sen. Sherrod Brown. "There is zero progressive interest in this [trade promotion authority]."
The group's website provides few details about when the coalition was launched or who's working for the group. But the team behind the Progressive Coalition for American Jobs includes some of the most senior members of Obama's campaign team. Lefty site Daily Kos reported Mitch Stewart, the former aide the president tapped to run Organizing For America, and Lynda Tran, the former OFA press secretary are involved. A press release earlier in the week announcing the group came from 270 Strategies, the campaign firm started by Stewart and Obama's former field director, Jeremy Bird.
Tran told BuzzFeed News the purpose of the group was to boost liberal voices who support the Obama trade agenda.
While there is Democratic support for increasing free trade and the White House has made an effort to placate progressives, arguing any deal will include tough language supporting labor rights and environmental protections, that message hasn't landed with the left. The Progressive Caucus in the House has released their own set of trade principles arguing that they believe it's "possible to negotiate a trade agreement that doesn't replicate the mistakes of the past." But as it currently stands, House progressives remain diametrically opposed to Obama's trade agenda.
"If you look at the progressives — labor unions, activists, online organizations — who are lined up against the TPP, there are no credible groups left to build a 'coalition,'" said an aide to a progressive House member, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record. "The creation of a front group like PCAJ is a sign people pushing for a bad trade deal don't have the votes to jam the [trade deal] through Congress."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said publicly she would like to find a way for Democrats to get to a "yes" vote on trade promotion authority in order to support the Obama administration and has privately cautioned her members to keep their powder dry in order to negotiate the most liberal deal possible.
A senior Democratic leadership aide told BuzzFeed News that the emergence of a group like the Progressive Coalition For American Jobs would bring "some modicum of balance" to the public discussion of the trade negotiations.
"I do think it's helpful to have an outside space for this to happen and for progressives to have a more balanced conversation about this," the aide said.
That's not how everyone feels, however. With the emergence of the Progressive Coalition For American Jobs, some progressives got the feeling Obama's allies were trying to flip the script.
"It's insulting," said Candice Johnson, spokesperson for the Communications Workers of America, one of the many unions organized against TPP. "You put progressive in your name and that's going to convince people?"
She called the group "fake," noting that it includes none of the biggest names in progressive politics in its coalition. Johnson wasn't alone in that characterization.
"As far as I know, the only thing 'progressive' about this so called 'Progressive Coalition for American Jobs' is the first word of the group's name," said Becky Bond, president of CREDO, the San Francisco-based progressive activist known to tangle publicly with the White House.
The Progressive Coalition For American Jobs strikes a nerve with organized progressives, who often feel sidelined in prominent debates, even during the Obama administration. The invovlment of 270 Strategies, which supported the candidate progressives opposed in a strange Democrat-vs-Democrat California congressional race last year, was particularly upsetting for some on the left.
"At this point, 270 strategies is well known for its AstroTurf efforts to slap a progressive label on the endeavors of Wall Street Wing Democrats and their corporate masters, but this is an earth-shattering new low," Neil Sroka, spokesperson for Democracy For America, the progressive group formed from the remnants of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid, told BuzzFeed News in an email. "You can be a progressive committed to fighting for working families or you can be for this massive job-killing trade deal written by 500 corporate reps, but you can't be both."
Tran, the former Obama aide, said the Progressive Coalition For American Jobs is about adding more voices to the trade debate, not silencing the progressive coalition already lined up against trade.
"When we looked around for other progressive voices making the case for free and fair trade, we found that there wasn't really a vehicle for engaging the public around the benefits of this trade deal," she wrote in an email. "So we decided to get involved and help launch the Progressive Coalition for American Jobs to bring together progressives across the activist, advocacy, and business communities."
Tran didn't answer questions about who funds the group or who the coalition's members are. But she pushed back on the notion that the group lacks progressive bona fides.
"As you know, Mitch and I are serving as advisors to PCAJ —and we have spent our lives fighting to advance progressive ideals," she wrote. "We believe this effort is not only in line with our values — the same values that led us to fight to help pass the Affordable Care Act, overturn 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and support President Obama's many other progressive policies — it's an incredible opportunity to make our world more just and more connected. Giving trade promotion authority to the president and enacting the TPP have the potential to do more to advance progressive ideals and values around the world than any other trade agenda in history."
The coalition "won't be hosting rallies or organizing major field activities," Tran wrote, but will instead focus on helping "get the word out" on Obama's trade deals.
There has been some outreach to members on the Hill, especially among members of the New Democrat coalition, a group of moderate House Democrats — many who would appear more open to Obama's trade agenda.
"They are going to be making ad buys and make the case that, with TPP and [trade promotion authority], we are getting some of the most progressive trade deals done that we've ever seen," said an aide to a member in the New Democratic coalition who has been in touch with the PCAJ. "There is a progressive case to be made for this and I think the goal of this group is to say, 'There's more than one kind of progressive out there with a message on trade' and that hasn't been heard."
Asked about the group, a White House spokesman said the administration "welcomed" the group's input.
"The president has made clear that expanding jobs and opportunities through progressive trade deals is a priority. It's not surprising that groups that share this commitment have decided to add their voice to the discussion, and we welcome their input," the spokesperson said.
Whatever the Progressive Coalition For American Jobs does in the coming days, though, it likely won't change any minds among progressive leaders.
"I have been in the trenches working on TPP from the beginning, and as far as I can tell there is no one in favor of it except big corporations," Mike Lux, a top progressive consultant in Washington, wrote in an email. "Every progressive group and sector that works on economic issues — labor, consumer groups, enviros, the online groups, civil rights groups, human rights groups, you name it — is vehemently against TPP, so I don't know what progressives are in this group's coalition."