No Way to Govern

President Obama is in full-bore Panic Mode trying to push his fast-track trade deal through Congress:

Trying to close out a tight game after a day when his trade agenda reached the brink of failure, President Barack Obama made a last-minute, unscheduled run to the congressional baseball game Thursday night.

Popping up out of the Democrats’ dug-out at Nationals Park with 24 White House beers on offer for the winning team, Obama was greeted with Republicans chanting “TPA, TPA!”

The appearance, not on the president’s schedule and not expected until just before he got into the motorcade, topped a day of heavy lobbying from administration officials trying to save fast track authority after House Democrats’ internal struggles pushed Obama’s top legislative priority perilously close to defeat.

I can’t think of another president who has had so much trouble with one of these trade deals. If passage isn’t exactly slam-dunk, the opposition to them is usually more kabuki than heartfelt — Congresscritters make a show of “protecting jobs back home!” or whatever, before doing the right thing and voting for freer trade.

But not this time. This time the trade deal simply might not have the votes.

What’s different?

Two things.

The first is that Obama is unique in my political lifetime of having no real friends on Capitol Hill. He has idealogical allies, in as much as progressives have an ideology beyond legislatively taking whatever they can get their hands on, but he has no friends. Thanks to Obama’s “my way or the highway” attitude, there’s no one in Congress he can call on the phone and say, “This is important to me. This is important to the country. How can we get this passed?” Obama has never cultivated those relationships, and now when he needs friends he finds there’s no one there to take his call, and he has to make an unscheduled appearance at a baseball game just to get some attention.

The second is the collapse in the American people’s trust in the Congress. We’ve thought for a long time that Congress was filled mostly with crooks and liars, and despite massive personnel changes since 2010, we still think Congress is filled mostly with crooks and liars. And so Congress, making a secret deal with a president with a penchant for secret deals, has no wellspring of trust with us upon which to draw. Our own Congresscritters have no moral authority to come home to us and say, “Trust me. This is a good deal.” All we see are the secret dealings done by shady characters, and the grassroots response is a nearly automatic “NO!” — with a side order of paranoia.

Even people like me who are always on the side of free trade feel this way. I don’t trust this president and I do not trust this Congress. They have done little to earn my trust, and much to fritter it away. Without being able to read the pact — “trust, but verify” as another president like to say — we have every reason to suspect it’s been larded it up with crony protections for the well-connected.

You can trace the GOP takeover of the House directly to Nancy Pelosi’s fake-smile insistence that Congress had to “pass the bill to find out what’s in it.” And now, just five years later, we have Paul Ryan telling us pretty much the same thing. The American people recoiled from Pelosi, and we have every right to do the same with Ryan.

So is the TPP a good idea? For all we know, yes. But a friendless president and an unloved Congress haven’t earned the trust to pass it without letting us verify it first.