One of the most revealing and entertaining episodes of the epic 2008 battle for the Democratic presidential nomination involved Canada and whether Barack Obama had, as Hillary Clinton charged, given our government "the old wink-wink" about his vow to reopen NAFTA.
The North American free-trade agreement, signed by Ms. Clinton's husband in 1993, had always divided Democrats. But by 2008, there was not a rust-belt Democrat who dared praise the deal. Free trade with Canada and Mexico was blamed for the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs. No contender for the party's nomination could risk triangulating on trade.
The Obama campaign went into damage control after a media leak suggesting a top adviser reassured Canadian consular officials in Chicago that all of the candidate's talk about renegotiating NAFTA was just "political positioning." The source of the leak – allegedly Canadian – became a minor diplomatic incident and may have set the tone for eight years of frosty relations between the Obama White House and the Harper government.
Mr. Obama never has got around to renegotiating NAFTA to include tougher labour and environmental protections. But his push to include such measures in the final text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership means he may not have to. Any labour and environmental standards elevated under the TPP would apply equally to Canada and Mexico, which are parties to the negotiations along with nine other Pacific Rim countries, including Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Mr. Obama calls the TPP the "most progressive trade deal in history" and has made its passage his priority. He has not lobbied members of Congress so forcefully on any initiative since his 2010 health-care law. But after two decades of trash-talking trade, blaming globalization for U.S. woes, most congressional Democrats are not about to change their spots now.
This has put Mr. Obama in the unique position of relying on Republicans to advance his agenda. But it is not enough. On Tuesday, the White House came up short of the required 60 votes needed in the Senate to advance a measure authorizing Mr. Obama to complete the TPP negotiations and submit a final deal to a straight up-or-down vote in Congress. Democrats voted in a bloc against their own party's President, a stinging rebuke that portends a rough road ahead for the party's 2016 nominee.
Open warfare has broken out between the White House and left-leaning Democrats in Congress, whose consciences Ms. Clinton needs to soothe to avoid any snags en route to the 2016 nomination. True to form, Ms. Clinton is impossible to pin down on TPP. But her ties to Wall Street and corporate America means they could be soon getting the "old wink-wink" themselves.
Mr. Obama has even taken on Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a former Harvard professor and lioness of the Democratic left who owes her political rise to the President's decision to tap her to monitor his bank bailouts in 2009. Ms. Warren, who says modern capitalism is "rigged" in favour of the rich, argues that TPP is "about giant multinational corporations finding new ways to rig the economic system to benefit themselves."
The President insists she is "absolutely wrong" and "the truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else." She has a base to pander to, without which she could not raise the profile or money she needs to play queenmaker in 2016.
Mr. Obama has given every indication he is sincere in his TPP pitch. The dynamics of trade have shifted massively since NAFTA was signed in 1993. Global supply chains, in-sourcing, new technologies and growth of trade in services provide a compelling case for TPP and its inclusion of a host of issues not covered in NAFTA. And if the United States does not write the rules on trade, Mr. Obama reminds his foes, China will.
Indeed, the White House has suggested TPP is as much about American power as trade. "When the administration sells me on this, it's all geopolitics, not economics," New York Senator Charles Schumer said before Tuesday's Senate vote. "I understand the President's desire to pull these countries away from China's [orbit]. But I feel middle-class income decline is the greatest problem Americans face and trade agreements exacerbate that decline."
If TPP was just about trade, Mr. Obama might not invest so much political capital in it. But unless he can persuade enough Democrats to ditch the dogma he helped perpetuate, his top priority could be toast.