Back in the days of storming the castle, a small contingent of desperate men — a mixture of the zealous, the condemned and the ambitious — were often assigned the task of charging a heavily defended position in order to secure the foothold that could be exploited by those who followed.
Such squads were dubbed “the forlorn hope.” Their task was often suicidal. But not always.
Last week, those preoccupied by the sight of Donald Trump finally bestowing citizenship on a sitting U.S. president missed something far more important happening only a few D.C. blocks away: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in a White House press conference, volunteering to push through Barack Obama’s final objective — a 12-country trade pact between the Americas and Asia.
“I happen to believe that technology is a far more destructive force in many areas than global trade,” Reed said last Friday. “Global trade is just more convenient to whack at because you don’t want to beat up on your iPad or your computer.”
After Nov. 8, Reed and Kasich will become prominent members of “the forlorn hope” who will take on the anti-trade defenses erected by both Trump and Hillary Clinton in this misbegotten presidential campaign. Look for the pair — and many others — to portray their work as an important exercise in sanity after an insane electoral season.
But also consider the strangeness of the situation: Kasich, the GOP governor of a state without which no Republican has ever won the presidency, has placed himself directly astride Trump’s protectionist solutions for a broken Rust Belt economy.
Reed, in turn, is contradicting not just Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who decided to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership after she supported it, but also Jim Barksdale, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Barksdale has made “bad trade deals” the centerpiece of his campaign against Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson.
“I understand [Barksdale] has got an election to win,” the mayor of Atlanta said in an interview this week. “And I’ve certainly taken my fair share of criticism from my Democratic friends in the labor movement. But the bottom line is, if you look at any real analysis, this bill is going to generate better-paying jobs that are more stable.”
Last week’s White House session was a public declaration of intent by Obama, official notice that the president is determined to bring the controversial trade bill before a lame-duck Congress after Election Day. When Clinton and Trump say that they oppose TPP, both should be taken at their word, Reed said.
“We’re not sending out any mixed signals about whether we’re going to defer to the president’s successor,” the mayor said. “This man is going to be the president to the last minute of the last day he’s in office.”
In essence, Obama has proposed a bipartisan, centrist shift that would quickly negate at least some of the impact of a White House race that has pushed both Democrats and Republicans to their extremes.
On one side, Clinton’s primary battle with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (aided by his colleague Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts) has merely exacerbated traditional Democratic antipathy toward trade deals.
Likewise, Kasim Reed’s public partnership with a Republican governor is tantalizingly familiar. The Atlanta mayor’s tenure began with an alliance with Gov. Nathan Deal — in pursuit of federal funding for the dredging of the Port of Savannah. There, too, international trade was the underlying issue.
It is Donald Trump who may have rewritten the Washington dynamics of trade politics. In the past, Republicans have been the foremost supporters of international trade deals — which Trump now describes as a string of incompetent bargains that have cost millions of Americans their livelihoods. Trump’s opposition to TPP forced other Republicans to ‘s rethink their support during the primary.
Mayor Reed said the White House intends to use as its guide the 2015 votes Congress took to authorize an up-or-down, majority-vote approval process for the Trans-Pacific Partnership — though some of those “yes” votes have now vanished. It will be a close-run thing.
In the U.S. Senate, Orrin Hatch of Utah is likely to be one of Obama’s top negotiating partners. Reed and Kasich appear ready to concentrate on the U.S. House Democratic and Republican caucuses, respectively.
“My focus will be on mayors and cities, and asking them to contact their strongest congressional partners. We find it to be very effective with local mayors that have authentic relationships with members of Congress,” the mayor said. “They have very different conversations than we see on on cable shows.”
There is the question of what clout a soon-to-be ex-president can wield. “People who want former President Obama to come out and help them in the future are going to need to stand with us on this vote,” Reed said.
Kasich, a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, may have the tougher job. Like Reed, the Ohio governor can easily rattle off what he sees as the economic advantages of a trade deal with Asian nations that surround a rising China. But Kasich’s chief message is likely to be based on national security.
It makes little sense to complain about China’s failure to intervene in North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weaponry, and then voluntarily remove an economic pressure point that makes Beijing’s intervention even less likely. One of the 12 partners in the TPP pact is Japan, Reed pointed out.
“We cannot leave one of the four biggest economies in the world subject to China’s sway and influence,” the mayor of Atlanta said.
As important as the fight is, look for it to stay largely underground until after we pick the next president. Yet members of Congress are aware, and watching.
We haven’t had a chance to poll House members from Georgia.
But last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who supported fast-tracking the trade pact last year, indicated that his chamber wouldn’t address the TPP during the lame-duck session.
So Isakson has placed himself on pause. “When it comes up, I will thoughtfully consider it. I am supportive of free trade,” the GOP incumbent said. “But until they tell us we’re going to vote for it, I’m not going to do my homework on it.”
David Perdue, Georgia’s junior senator, likewise left the door cracked. But not by much. “He would ideally prefer any trade deal of this magnitude to get a full debate and not be rushed through a lame-duck session or wrapped into a year-end deal,” a Perdue spokeswoman said.
They don’t call it a forlorn hope for nothing.