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The Aggressive, Sometimes Bizarre Progressive Campaign Against Obama’s Trade Agenda

The intraparty war between Democrats over President Obama’s trade deal has been tense on both sides.

Posted on May 12, 2015, at 11:18 a.m. ET

Brendan Smialowski / Getty

WASHINGTON — When Congress decides this week whether to give the Obama administration the fast-track trade authority the president wants, the vote will be the culmination of the intense, nasty, weird battle between progressives and pro-trade Democrats that’s forced the White House to take on its base in a way it never expected. And that’s just the public battle.

Behind the scenes, the tension is even higher: Progressive trade opponents have followed a pro-trade Democrat home to his house, sent anonymous emails to Hill staffers some thought came from the administration, leveraged political money in a way that’s upset even their allies, and suggested trade deals like the one favored by the president were among the causes of the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

The White House and its allies have been very aggressive, too. But the administration side of this fight is well-documented — partially because the toughest attacks on the left have come from the man with the loudest voice in the country: Obama, who recently flew to Oregon to attack progressive trade critics in a high-profile speech from Nike’s global headquarters (a move unpopular with his critics: “I was appalled the president would go to Nike,” said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America). Obama is now openly sparring with Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Those White House allies argue, however, that they are not alone here. The progressives, they say, have essentially gotten away with their incendiary tactics against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed Asian trade deal, and the fast-track authority that would limit Congress to simple up-or-down votes on trade deals.

An often-cited example is the treatment of Sen. Ron Wyden. The Oregon Democrat has been a long-time progressive on many issues, most notably his ongoing attacks on the administration’s domestic use of bulk surveillance. But he supports Obama on trade. And since he said that, the left has gone after Wyden hard. Protesters have taken their efforts to Wyden’s house in southeast Oregon, his family home in New York City, and the bookstore owned by his wife there, the Strand. The groups were small — never approaching a dozen people, according to someone familiar with them — but protesting a politician at his home did not impress even Obama’s trade opponents back in Washington.

“I wouldn’t pick that tactic, honestly. I do think that in democracy, people have a right to do things, but that wouldn’t have been a tactic we would have suggested,” Cohen said. “On the other hand, the president going to Nike? And giving the speech that he gave? … Ron Wyden and his connections to Nike is a lot more troublesome to me than the fact that some people may have gone overboard at his house. I mean, they didn’t go overboard, but even showing up there. I don’t think that that’s a tactic that’s going to build broad-based support.”

For his part, Wyden hasn’t publicly said the protests bothered him. But many of his and Obama’s allies point to them when complaining about the progressive attacks.

“I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with activists over and over again to push our government in a more progressive direction and stand up for Americans’ rights, so I welcome their work to have their voices heard, even when we don’t agree,” Wyden told BuzzFeed News in a statement provided by his Senate office.

Wyden said the protesters’ cause is already included in the current trade debate, a point Obama has tried to argue in his public statements lately.

“When it comes to trade, activists have made valid points about the secrecy of trade agreements and a lack of enforcement, among other things,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons the president and I pushed so hard to ensure today’s trade agreements are very different from those of the 1990s.”

Cohen himself has upset pro-trade Democrats with his often impassioned rhetoric on the president’s trade plans. Back in January, he drew a line between the ‘90s trade deals, the decline of Detroit, and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Every one of our members in Detroit, high-tech or low-tech, know that the trade policies that devastated Detroit devastate their lives also — that they can’t get a raise when people don’t have a job,” Cohen said at a Capitol Hill press conference with prominent trade opponents. “Our members in St. Louis and Ferguson know that the root causes of Ferguson lie in the shutdowns in St. Louis. And so we connect the dots in this coalition and with these members of Congress.”

At the time, the comment drew little press scrutiny, but it got the attention of trade-supporting Democrats. “Obama administration officials were ‘taken aback’ by the level of rhetoric from Thursday’s anti-fast track press conference,” read a tiny item buried in a Jan. 9 Politico newsletter. The claim that trade policy can adversely affect communities of color predates the Ferguson unrest. A policy brief on the CWA website, “TPA A Worry for Communities of Color,” made the case that fast track could hurt black workers in June 2014.

Months later, though, Cohen’s argument that the “root causes” of Ferguson were in trade is still is angering pro-trade Democrats, who cast the comment as over the line at best, and illustrative of the progressive attacks.

Cohen doesn’t think much of the controversy.

"I think the right [connection to trade] to make is Ferguson as a part of St. Louis, not Ferguson itself,” he said. “The president himself said that the loss of all the factory jobs in Baltimore is directly related to this. That’s a quote from the president. He just doesn’t tie it to trade.”

Hilary Shelton, a St. Louis native and senior official at the NAACP, said the Ferguson comment was “just a little bit hyperbolic,” but said his group also worries about the potential for trade policy to adversely affect communities of color.

Labor’s full-court press on trade has upset even their political allies. A freeze on all political spending by the AFL-CIO announced in March wasn’t supported by all the unions in the labor confederation, and Democratic allies on the Hill say the move was a step too far.

“I think it was unnecessary, I don’t think the labor unions needed to make that kind of nuclear threat to their friends. And we are their friends,” said Rep. G. K. Butterfield, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who told BuzzFeed News he's currently "leaning no" on fast track. “It rises to the level of a nuclear threat and I think some of them have had second thoughts about making that statement.”

Elsewhere in Washington, other antics have grated on the Democrats backing Obama. Public Citizen, the progressive activist group originally founded by but now longer officially associated with Ralph Nader, has been at the center of generating progressive talking points, opposition research, op-eds, and other material often cited by lawmakers opposed to the trade deals. The group also has a 16-foot-tall horse-shaped parade float labeled “Trojan Horse Trade Agreement.” In February, the group combined those two ideas into an email lobbying campaign that pro-trade Democrats labeled downright odd, and embarrassing for the TPP-opponents side.

On the Friday before Valentine’s Day, an email from “” landed in the inbox of dozens of trade-focused Democratic legislative assistants across Capitol Hill. Michael Froman is the U.S. Trade Representative, Obama’s top negotiator on the TPP trade deal, and if not the progressive enemy number one, probably somewhere between two and four. The email had no signature and directed readers to an anonymous website,, which consisted of “Mike” begging forgiveness for having “not been faithful in this relationship.”

Dearest Member of Congress,

Will you be my Valentine? If I have betrayed your trust, I am sorry that you feel that way. I’ve been so focused on convincing you to take the Fast Track trip with me and buy those trade deals I love, I’ve said some things that, in retrospect, were not true. :( Will you give me another chance? Will it help if I come clean with a little Valentine’s Day poem for you and some sweet nothings on a special website just for you?

Neither the website nor the email listed Public Citizen.

“There was lot of confusion at first about, ‘Where did this come from?’” recalled one senior pro-trade Democratic Hill staffer. They asked the USTR, “Are you guys sending us candygrams right now?”

The anonymous email with the USTR-focused valentines was odd, the staffer said. “This falls in the more outlandish category,” the staffer said. “Usually you get a letter with 6,000 groups signed on to it or something.”

Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and a veteran of the trade wars stretching back decades, was behind the email. Her name was on the domain registration of the Fromantics website too, though neither her name nor Public Citizen’s was anywhere on the site itself. Wallach was happy to discuss it in detail in an interview, and laughed off congressional staff who may have been confused.

Staff at Public Citizen were actually worried no one would open their email, not that many people would and would then be fooled.

“We were thinking we would have to print out paper valentines and bring them to the individual offices, because basically anyone with any internet sanitation protocols would not think that was from the USTR and as a result they would not open the dang link,” she said.

It was not the first time Wallach had heard congressional staff were surprised by the email.

“With that email, it did not cross our minds that anyone would think it was from Mike Froman. But in retrospect, I guess next time we do what we thought was not a very subtle joke, we’ll have to actually specifically say, 'This is not from USTR Froman!’” she said. “It didn’t seem subtle to us. I mean for one thing, if we wanted to hide it, we wouldn’t have sent it from here. You can track it back to us.”

In some ways, this political dynamic was expected: Obama’s allies in Washington have said all along that passing trade deals with Republican support is traditionally the way trade deals are done, and that the sometimes awkward fight amongst Democrats was always an expected part of the trade push. But pro-trade Democrats have clearly been impressed by the way the left has rallied, and stayed rallied, against the Obama trade agenda. On the Hill, Obama’s allies watched in dismay as the left started applying real pressure against fast track while the White House focused its defense on a strategy of what one ally called “Let’s get people facts and information.” That meant dry and policy-heavy briefings many members didn’t attend. And it certainly did not mean anything like a 16-foot-tall horse.

Now that Obama has fully engaged, really calling on his base to trust him on trade and to believe that he’s not going to send a trade deal to Congress that runs counter to the rest of his agenda, his allies are starting to get more confident that he’s rallied enough Democratic support to get his trade agenda through. Pro-trade Democrats recently sent around an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing growing support for trade among Democratic voters, including big jumps among Latino and black voters.

Progressives say they’ve done enough damage to keep fast-track authority from passing the House, certainly. They’ve definitely quieted many Democrats when it comes to crossing them publicly: Democratic critics of progressive trade strategy contacted by BuzzFeed News generally preferred to stay off the record or speak without attribution about the groups that may prove to be valuable allies in future legislative fights.

Pro-trade Democrats say the progressives shot themselves in the foot with tactics and rhetoric — threats of primaries, an aggressive “you’re with us or against us” mentality — that have turned many Democrats off.

“The sense is absolutely that the attacks cross the line,” the pro-trade aide said. “It’s frustrating to a lot of members when they really do want to get in the room and shape policy and make trade agreements more progressive.”

Progressives say they don’t mean to scare anybody off, and they’re not trying to be in your face for in your face’s sake. They just don’t see room for wiggle room.

“This vote on fast-track and the TPP, it’s not a close call. So if there is an issue where it’s a sincere ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ moment, then the kind of really pressured, pointed tactics and messages that apply for this campaign wouldn’t be appropriate,” Wallach said. “But in this instance, it’s not a close call.”

Lawmakers stuck in the middle of the fight between the White House and progressives don’t see the heated rhetoric fading quickly from memories. Butterfield, the Congressional Black Caucus chair, has been lobbied by the president directly as well as all the progressive groups pushing to keep Democrats from standing with Obama on trade. For now, he’s standing with the progressives. But he said the tactics of both sides have left a mark.

“The president feels very strongly about TPA and TPP. I haven’t seen him this determined since the whole Affordable Care Act debate back in ‘09. He is fully invested in this debate, because he is convinced that he’s right,” he said. “This is not one of those issues that’s a come and go issue. I’ve lived through and seen many of those, that seem kind of clenching but at the end of the day it passes over. But this is one of those that’s going to be with us for a while. The proponents and opponents feel very strongly about their positions.”

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