With a victory in Tuesday's Michigan presidential primary critical to his campaign, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has seized on an issue on which he and Hillary Clinton have sharp disagreements — trade, which he blames for ravaging the state's once-bountiful manufacturing jobs.
There's one big complication: Sanders' trade position not only differs from Clinton's but from the two most recent Democratic presidents, who remain hugely popular among the party's voters. That has forced Sanders into a narrow path of lauding Bill Clinton and President Obama while at the same time picking at the trade deals both consider central to their legacies.
Persistent loyalty to the two former Democratic presidents represents a continued dilemma for Sanders and an advantage for Hillary Clinton. Her husband, Bill Clinton, pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement, against which Sanders campaigned on Thursday. President Obama, in whose administration she served, has pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which Sanders vehemently opposes and to which Clinton has offered more mild opposition.
Polls of Democratic voters casting ballots this year have shown large majorities of Democrats wanting to continue Obama's policies rather than adopt the more liberal approach Sanders has advocated. The one exception, in which voters were closely divided on that question, was New Hampshire, which not coincidentally was the state in which Sanders collected his biggest victory.
On Thursday here, Sanders delivered a carefully worded reproach of Hillary Clinton's trade positions, contending that deals she had backed as first lady, New York senator and secretary of State had resulted in "the disappearance of the American middle class."
He cited her support for NAFTA during her husband's presidency and for subsequent deals involving China, Colombia and Mexico. He suggested that her current opposition to the Pacific trade agreement would be reversed were she to become president.
On multiple trade deals, "she was very, very wrong, and millions of families around America have been suffering because of those disastrous trade policies," Sanders said. He was preceded at the lectern by two Michigan union members who had lost their jobs.
As a member of Congress in the 1990s, he had immediately recognized that NAFTA would punish American workers, Sanders said.
His contention about the trade deal's impact remains under debate two decades after its passage, but Sanders said it should not be.
"You didn't need a PhD in economics to figure that one out," he said. "From the first days that I was in Congress, not only did I oppose NAFTA and virtually every other agreement, but I was on the picket lines in opposition to those agreements."
But Sanders bridled when asked by a reporter whether he was suggesting that Obama had abandoned the workers who had spoken on Sanders' behalf.
"You're trying to play a 'gotcha' type of game," he said. While he and Obama have disagreed on trade, he said, "in many other areas, he has been a very good president."
"Many, many Americans are disappointed and disagree with President Obama," on the Pacific trade deal, he added. Trade policies "were a disaster under Republican leadership; they were a disaster under Democratic leadership."
Sanders is seeking to merge two political threads. Democrats have become more liberal over the past generation. That puts them closer on trade to labor unions, which in recent decades almost always have opposed such deals on the grounds that they harm American workers. (During Bill Clinton's era, by contrast, Democrats were moving to the center on issues like trade.)
In the industrial belt and in Michigan specifically, many people blame trade for huge losses of the manufacturing jobs that once gave blue-collar workers — many of them Democrats — a dependable middle-class income.
Demographics may blunt Sanders' odds of success as he makes trade a key element of his primary fight. Many of the state's remaining manufacturing workers are African American, an important Michigan voter bloc and one that has sided with Clinton in every other state this year. Not by accident, the two workers who spoke at Sanders' event in Lansing were African American.
Sanders also is fighting good economic trends in the state. While some sectors remain troubled, the economy in Michigan has improved by many measures. December unemployment was at 5.1%, almost the same as the national figure. That marked a decline of almost 10 points from the high of 14.9%, reached in June 2009, a few months after Obama took office.
A broader measurement of those who have given up looking for work or who were underemployed has also dropped significantly from the height of the recession, according to state labor statistics.
Fights over trade have marked Democratic politics for decades. The passage of the NAFTA agreement was achieved over organized labor's angry objections, and those divisions continue to rumble today. Sanders is hoping that they are felt most deeply in the industrial Midwest, where the campaign has now moved.
During her campaign, Clinton has taken on the subject of trade around the edges, regularly implying that manufacturing jobs have been lost because of corporate greed rather than trade deals, automation or any other cause.
"We need more good jobs, jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced, jobs that provide dignity and a path to a brighter future," she said after her victory last Saturday in South Carolina. "And don't let anyone tell you we can't make things in America — I know we can, and I know we will."
Sanders' campaign has emphasized the need to upend what he terms a "rigged" economic system that benefits the wealthy and endangers the middle class. His opposition to trade deals is a central facet of that argument, and for that reason alone the issue is unlikely to go away.
Organized labor also is invested in keeping the topic alive in the presidential contest; at last weekend's California Democratic party convention, the head of the state labor federation denounced the Trans Pacific trade deal and vowed that labor would not support Democrats who approved of it.
Sanders left Michigan after the Lansing event for Nebraska, where Democrats will hold caucus meetings Saturday. He is expected to return to this state for multiple events before Tuesday's primary. Clinton has scheduled what her campaign is billing as a "major policy speech about job creation and the economy" in Detroit on Friday. Both Democrats will appear in a debate Sunday in Flint, a site chosen because of the national uproar about the lead poisoning of the city's water supply.
Sanders went out of his way on Thursday to tie that crisis to his position on trade.
"When we look at Flint, it is not only a poisoned water system, it is the understanding that trade policies have devastated that community as well," he said.
"It is time to tell corporate America in a forceful way they are no longer going to throw American workers out on the streets and build shiny new plants in China, Mexico or other low-wage countries — that, in fact, they are going to start reinvesting in this country."
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