Many self-identified progressive Democrats in Congress have spent the last several months publicly criticizing the Obama administration over a continuous free-trade proposal. Now Obama allies are striking back with a new group defending it, heightening an intraparty fight about who gets to call themselves progressives ahead of 2016.
Last month, 270 Strategies, a consulting firm run by former Obama campaign officials Mitch Stewart, Betsy Hoover, and Jeremy Bird, launched the Progressive Coalition for American Jobs to encourage support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal that would comprise 12 countries, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and Mexico. The group also supports Congress giving the administration trade promotion authority, also called "fast-track" authority, which would allow the final deal to be subject to an up or down vote from Congress without the ability to amend it.
Stewart said his support for TPP was based on his previous support of Obama's agenda as a candidate, as well as his confidence in Obama's ability to negotiate a deal with strong labor and environmental protections.
"We trust this president to go out and advocate for those values we believed in as a company and that he's believed in the six or seven years we've worked for him," Stewart told National Journal. Stewart considers free trade inevitable, so it is best as he sees it to have Obama negotiate the plan.
For the officials at 270 Strategies, the goal of the coalition is to try and win over skeptical Democrats in Congress.
But many progressives in Congress have criticized the administration for secrecy around the proposal and loudly worry it could weaken environmental and labor standards.
Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, criticized the new group for its attempt to "progressive-wash" the trade deal.
"Their job is trying to make it look like the White House agenda is always the progressive agenda," Sroka told National Journal.
Hoover, the Digital Strategy Director for 270 Strategies, said she recognizes that there are progressives who disagree but that there is a spectrum for progressivism.
"We respect that, and we respect them, and that's fine. We're allowed to have different positions," Hoover said.
But Murshed Zaheed, deputy political director at Credo, said there hasn't been any dissent among true progressives about the trade deal.
"Big progressive online groups, including Progressives on the Hill, they are completely on record saying this is not a good thing," Zaheed said. On April Fool's Day, a number of progressive groups created a parody website called RealPCAJ.org, which uses the same outline and similar language as the Progressive Coalition for American Jobs' website but instead highlights progressive groups that are opposed to the trade deal.
"The fact is, you can be a progressive committed to fighting for working families, or you can be for this massive job-killing trade deal written by hundreds of corporate representatives, but you can't be both," Sroka said on a press call including Public Citizen, Credo Action, the Communication Workers of America, and Citizens Trade Campaign along with Democracy for America.
Ed Gerwin, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute—which was initially an "idea mill" for Bill Clinton's New Democrats—said he is concerned about saying those who support trade are not sufficiently progressive.
"Those of us on the center-left who support the administration's efforts are no less progressive," Gerwin told National Journal.
Gerwin illustrates that the debate about the Progressive Coalition on American Jobs and 270 Strategies is about a larger point of who gets to call themselves a progressive as the grassroots of the party continue to identify as progressive and want the Democratic Party to push for more issues.
All three founding members of 270—Stewart, Hoover, and Bird (who is Hoover's husband)—were born in and molded by progressive advocacy, having worked on various Democratic campaigns or left-wing organizations.
270 has also backed a number of causes that are considered progressive—including supporting Planned Parenthood and Battleground Texas, which was started to help the state's Democrats. The group has helped with efforts to elect Democratic state secretaries across the country and to oppose voter-ID laws. 270 also typically doesn't shy away from economic progressivism, having worked with the Service Employees International Union to help airport workers. The SEIU opposes the trade deal.
"I have a history of fighting for progressive causes" Bird said, emphasizing that his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is completely congruous with his values.
But for Sroka, it's the fact that the people at 270 Strategies are products of the progressive movement that frustrates him. "This isn't selling out," Sroka says. "This is actively trying to break the progressive movement in an area where we have been really clear."
Sroka's problems with 270 Strategies go past just trade. While many progressives are backing Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in Chicago's mayoral race, 270 Strategies threw its support behind Rahm Emanuel, who frequently clashed with progressives when he served as chief of staff for Obama.
The main complaint for opponents of the trade deal appears to be the prospect of equating whatever the Obama administration supports as progressive.
The Democratic battle over the TPP serves as a preview for the direction of the Democratic Party going into 2016. On one end, groups like MoveOn.org and others are pushing for Sen. Elizabeth Warren—who has criticized parts of the trade deal—to run for president, despite Warren's continued insistence she is not running. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a potential Hillary Clinton challenger who has taken on a more populist tone, recently came out against the deal.
The divide between various camps has also manifested itself by 270 Strategies teaming up with Ready for Hillary to prepare for an all-but-certain Clinton candidacy and to manage recruitment and volunteer training. While she was secretary of State, Clinton spoke supportively of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and also wrote positively about it in her memoir.
In one of the few public spats between progressive and establishment Democrats, the progressive wing doesn't appear to have a strong champion leading its cause into 2016. But the fissures aren't going to just go away.
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Eric Garcia is a staff correspondent for National Journal. He previously was a transparency reporter for MarketWatch, where he reported on financial regulation issues. His work has also appeared in the Southern Political Report, Salon, the American Prospect and the New Republic. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and covered politics for its campus paper, the Daily Tar Heel.