Is Robert Reich a Republican by Trade? The Story of a Flip-Flopping Grifter

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Robert Reich, the former labor secretary in the Clinton administration has become quite the darling of the Professional Factless Left by railing against the Obama administration with a cadre of populist-sounding rhetoric (but little facts). His most recent celebrity comes from doing a quick video with - which then found homes among other grifter reactionary organizations - opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the trade promotion authority the president is seeking.

Evidently quite the sketch-artist, Reich does his best to scare viewers about the big bad TPP, taking a potshot at the negotiations' supposed "secrecy" and packing in drama-filled quasi-detail translating to, "Boo!" That no one in the vast network of grifter organizations has asked how it is that the same people who complain about the confidential nature of the trade negotiations also seem to know everything about them is a little curious for people who sell themselves as intellectuals, but that would be muddying the pristine waters of pure rage with stubborn things called facts.

Reich, though, is a special kind of grifter. As I will demonstrate below, his position on free trade when he was in power to influence it was the same as the Republican position: give corporations free rein and make labor an afterthought.

He isn't just trying to use the Professional Left's propensity for flammable hair to gain his own popularity and book sales, he is lecturing the most progressive and labor-friendly president in US history with no apparent sense of irony that he was part of the team that brought us NAFTA.

Perhaps thinking ahead that someone will catch him with his hands in NAFTA's cookie jar, Reich issued a non-apology apology for not doing his job when he was Labor Secretary in his diatribe against what is shaping up to be the most progressive trade agreement in history - the Trans-Pacific Partnership - saying “I still regret not doing more to strengthen the North American Free Trade Act’s labor and environmental side-agreements”.

That's nice, but welcome to the Obama era, Mr. Secretary, an era in which working people and the environment are no longer "side-agreements" but are a core and fully enforceable part of free and fair trade agreements you are busy opposing.

When he had the power to affect policy, though, Reich wasn't content merely to not do enough on those cute "side-agreements", he was a full throttled pusher of NAFTA. Enter the power of archiving on the Internet. In a 2000 Interview with PBS' Frontline, Reich had no qualms about having President Clinton's back while he was signing NAFTA. Observe this back-and-forth:

Q: Later in the summer, NAFTA takes the fore. You are passionate about this. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland is in your ear all the time. Elsewhere in the administration, there is enormous pressure in support of NAFTA. How did the president deal with that? He had you and labor in one ear, and Rubin and Panetta in the other.

REICH: Well, personally, I was and still am a free trader. I think that free trade is inevitable and overall it helps everyone. But labor was very against NAFTA. And I remember appearing on so many stages in front of various labor groups and being booed off the stage because I was representing the president, and the president was committed to NAFTA. He was committed to NAFTA in the campaign. He said, during the 1992 campaign, “I am going to sign the North American Free Trade Act.”

Q: What was your advice to him during the debate though?

REICH: My advice to him during the campaign was to sign it.

As a free-trade advocate before these free trade deals began to incorporate enforceable labor and environmental provisions, Reich was no reluctant good soldier in Clinton's fight to get NAFTA through; he was a front-line general leading the charge.

Later in the same interview, Reich would describe the signage and passage of NAFTA as a "victory", asked about the Democrats' rout in the 1994 midterms.

Q: In the November [1994] elections, Democrats lose both houses for the first time in four decades. What did that do to the confidence of the White House?

REICH: [...] First there was the necessity to get the deficit down. And then there was the defeat of health care. There were some victories along the way, like NAFTA, but there was a sense that we were not getting what we had set out to do done. And now this defeat seemed to be saying, in effect, “You guys don’t know what you’re doing.”

But you see, according to some, it's this man we should trust on trade, and not the president who has proven his record on the rights of working people and certainly not the president who is trying to clean up Reich's former boss' mess by renegotiating NAFTA in the TPP. You know, because OBAMAAAAA!!!!

Which brings us to the second grifting Republican trait in Reich: change, completely reverse, and run away from your lifelong policy positions simply because President Obama supports it. Part of Reich's TPP fame comes from his opposition to the Trade Promotion Authority under consideration by Congress, often referred to by the misnomer "fast-track". To review from our education series, recall that the TPA is a mechanism that gives Congress up to 90 days to consider a trade deal and allows it to vote it straight up or down without amendments (as  the president can't negotiate with foreign governments if it's going to be changed at the whim of another body).

Reich claims silence during the process of granting President Clinton the same authority when he was negotiating NAFTA.

“I pushed hard inside the Clinton administration for stronger labor and environmental side agreements to NAFTA. . . . Wish I had done more.” And “As to fast-tracking trade agreements, though, had no role.”
— Robert Reich

Too bad that's a lie. Reich was a fervent proponent of the trade promotion authority not only for his former boss but also for his immediate successor, President Bush. In 2007, Reich did as good as job as anyone in explaining what it was and advocating for it. In a speech to 1300 business school representatives in Tampa, Reich was crystal clear.

That’s the only reason that any other country would sign a trade treaty with the United States. You’re not going to sign a trade treaty with the United States if it can be amended all the way through Congress because you don’t know what you’re going to end up with. That Fast Track trade promoting authority is vitally important.

I see, for George W. Bush, a former oil executive whose Vice President is still collecting is his executive pension from a defense contractor, for him trade promotion authority was "vitally important." But for the former community organizer and Constitutional law professor whose Vice President is a lifelong public servant? Trade promotion must be stopped! Because if you can trust one of these administrations to care about workers, it'd be the Bush administration.

No? Then what is going on?

What do you think is going on? This is the full-blown GOP symptom of abandoning your own formerly deeply held beliefs just because the black guy now wants the same thing. What's going on is a supposed "progressive" who helped squash the labor rebellion to get NAFTA through and implored Congress to give George Bush fast track trade promotion authority is suddenly feigning outrage that President Obama is seeking that authority for a new trade pact that would renegotiate and clean up their NAFTA mess.

What's going on is that liberals are being hoodwinked by this and other grifters who know it's far too easy to rile up the Left's hair on fire crowd to feel like they are relevant in the national conversation again or to plain raise money or sell books. What's going on is someone who is displaying all these knee-jerk anti-Obama Republican traits is selling themselves as a voice of progressives.

What's going on is too many of us on the left is lapping it up without question. Shame on Reich, and shame on us for allowing him to get away with his grifting.

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