If there's anything more surprising than President Donald Trump's newfound interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it's how little the commentators have had to say about it. When the president of the United States opens the door to a major change in policy, you expect pundits to spill buckets of ink analyzing why he's shifting course and what it means. You have to wonder: Why hasn't that happened?
For most of his presidency, the TPP agreement had ranked near the top of Trump's hate list. "A rape of the country," he'd called it. "A horrible deal." So horrible, indeed, that his first official act as president was to withdraw the U.S. from the pact, which his predecessor had barely finished negotiating.
The withdrawal disappointed interest groups expecting to benefit from the 12-nation agreement. Agriculture was looking forward to easier access to the Japanese market. Trump said he could negotiate a better deal bilaterally with Japan.
A year went by. The Japanese made it clear they had no interest in a bilateral negotiation; they wanted the U.S. back in the TPP. Trump, for his part, continued to lambast the pact.
So when the president, interviewed at the World Economic Forum at Davos by CNBC in late January, said he had something big to share, for once he wasn't exaggerating.
"I will give you a big story" the president told CNBC. "I would do TPP if we made a better deal than we had." The president reiterated his feelings about the horribleness of the deal, but for the first time he seemed open to trying to make it less horrible.
Later, in a formal speech at Davos, Trump continued down his new path: "We would consider," he said, negotiating with the 11 TPP countries "either individually or perhaps as a group, if it is in the interests of all."
This certainly sounds like a big policy change, even with the qualification that the agreement would have to be renegotiated to America's advantage. Joe Kernen, the CNBC interviewer, admitted he was "taken aback."
Yet after the first-day news coverage, a surprising silence has ensued among the op-ed commentators. An internet search turns up less than a handful of second-day stories and but one analytical piece -- by an Australian academic in an Australian newspaper.
What gives? A Washington think-tank analyst quoted by Japan's Kyodo News Service in a follow-up story credited Trump's change of tune to a decision by the other 11 TPP countries, reached a few days before the president's Davos remarks, to proceed without the U.S. Trump, the analyst theorized, is now afraid of America "losing out" as other TPP countries move forward with the deal (http://bit.ly/…).
That sounds plausible, but keep in mind the theory's Japanese media origins. Japan has been leading the proceed-with-TPP-even-without-America movement. It's been hoping this would make America decide it was losing out and jump back in. The Japanese, in other words, were primed to view Trump's wavering as a sign their tactic had succeeded.
David Malpass, undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs, offered another explanation for Trump's change of heart. He was quoted in the Wall Street Journal's first-day story saying it was a response to aggressive Chinese trade practices (http://tiny.cc/…). That's also plausible, though it should be noted that heading off China was also one of the Obama administration's justifications for TPP.
Whatever the merits of these theories, they don't explain the pundits' silence. Why haven't more commentators stepped forward to argue for or against these theories or to offer others? Why does the cat have these normally talkative opinion dispensers' tongues?
Here's my theory: The pundits don't know whether to take the president seriously. There was, after all, no indication in his brief remarks that he has thought the matter through. He didn't explain why he'd changed his mind; he didn't hint at what demands he'd make in a renegotiation.
Consider, too, that the president dropped his little bomb at a gathering of the globalist glitterati. Like many politicians, Trump has a habit of trying to please whatever audience he's addressing. The Davos crowd believes in free trade and international cooperation. Trump went there to assure them that "America first" doesn't mean "America alone." He seemed eager to show that he isn't really such a scary guy.
Might the TPP comment have just been crowd-pleasing talk, then? Note, in this regard, that there were no advance leaks of the change in position, and that (Malpass aside) the Trump administration has had nothing further to say about TPP since Davos.
There's another reason to wonder how serious Trump is. Interest groups, including the farm lobby, have been complaining about the administration's failure to replace TPP with a Japan bilateral. A cynic might wonder if having failed to convince the Japanese to negotiate bilaterally, the president dangles the possibility of re-entering TPP to keep the interest groups at bay.
If that's what he's up to, he may be out of luck. As DTN's Chris Clayton has reported, farm groups have sent the president a letter urging him to press ahead with TPP (http://tiny.cc/…). Whether or not Trump fears America "losing out," the interest groups fear it. The more pressure they put on the administration, the sooner we'll all find out whether Trump's TPP switch was for real.
Urban Lehner can be reached at email@example.com
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