Last week, Congress surprised President Obama and much of the nation by denying him "fast-track" authority to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. That's probably good, but I'm not sure. It's hard to have an opinion about the TPP, because exactly what it would do is a closely guarded secret.
Members of Congress can look at a draft version of the TPP in a special room, where they are not allowed to take notes. Under penalty of imprisonment, they are forbidden to publicly reveal any details of the treaty. Representatives of about 600 private companies, on the other hand, can access the draft via an encrypted Internet portal.
I am of that tradition in American politics that suspects any plan General Electric can know about but the public cannot. That's how you wind up with mind-control TVs or, worse, NAFTA. But I would feel more confident about my position on the TPP if it did not coincide with certain congresspeople.
Three broad camps are against the TPP: me, progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans. Rep. Ryan Zinke is a member of that third group, which opposed giving Obama fast-track negotiation authority on the grounds that it would involve Obama. Zinke explained his position—before throwing his support behind an ammended version of the negotiation plan—in an interview with Breitbart News.
"We are talking about giving Barack Obama—a president who negotiates with rogue nations like Iran and Cuba—exorbitant authority to do what he thinks is best," he said. "Just look at the bad deal he's crafting with Iran. At this time, I don't have faith that President Obama will negotiate in the best interest of Montana or America."
First of all, kudos to Rep. Zinke for speaking three consecutive sentences to a reporter without mentioning that he is a former Navy SEAL—even if the photo he provided shows him in uniform and Kevlar vest and appears to date from the late '90s. Also, let us not take too seriously anything we read in Breitbart News, a brand name which inspires as much trust as Raid Candy. Still, Zinke's remarks are troubling.
Zinke disagrees with the president's position on international trade, and I think he is right to do so. But I do not think it is appropriate for a sitting congressman to suggest that the president of the United States does not have America's best interests at heart.
That kind of talk is particularly ugly from a military man. Rep. Zinke is out of the Navy—though you wouldn't know it from his picture and the constant reminders of his service—but he might retain some respect for the office of commander in chief. It's one thing to say the president is wrong about the Trans Pacific Partnership. It's quite another to say he is negotiating for some interest other than the well-being of the United States.
If the president is against us, we should probably scotch this whole representative democracy thing right now. Why even bother to send square-jawed patriots to Capitol Hill if an enemy of the state sits in the Oval Office? It makes sense that Zinke isn't afraid to call out such a powerful charlatan, given Zinke's combat background, but the rest of us should probably buy canned goods and dig holes. The president has been compromised, and no American is safe.
Either that or Zinke spoke irresponsibly. He believes the Obama administration has been bad for America, and he does not trust the president to negotiate a trade deal that will help us in the future—either because Obama is wrong about the TPP or because he is a poor negotiator.
That would be a fine thing to say. I happen to agree with it. But Zinke is a first-term congressman, and he has no business telling a reporter that the president does not want what's best for America.
I suspect Zinke is not always great at saying exactly what he means. His reluctance to participate in any debates before the 2014 election supports that theory. I poke fun at him for overemphasizing his service record, but he was a Navy SEAL and the odds of any one person possessing the insanely rare skill set necessary to do that job and also being a gifted speaker are low. Probably, our man in Congress is less of a talker and more of a doer.
That's okay. He does not need to speak perfectly to do a fine job representing the interests of Montana. But he does need to speak carefully.
Rep. Zinke has a constituency now, and he needs to take care that he does not inspire cynicism among them. Saying the president doesn't love America as much as they do might strengthen the party, but it weakens the democracy. Reasonable people can disagree, but at the end of the debate, we are all on the same team.
Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and loose talk at combatblog.net.