LeBron James and the Do-Something Democrats: Support for Democrats “In the Arena” on Trade

By / 6.17.2015

In this year’s NBA Finals, LeBron James cemented his reputation as one of the greatest basketball players of all time­—becoming the first player in Finals history to lead both teams in points, rebounds, and assists in every game, and averaging an astounding 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists for the six-game series.

In addition to his basketball prowess, Lebron is also a student of oratory and leadership. When faced with criticism and second-guessing, he’s frequently cited Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 address on “Citizenship in a Republic,” popularly known as the “Man in the Arena” speech. Like Roosevelt, LeBron believes that:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds. . . . “

In Washington’s ongoing trade battles, there’s a group of Democratic House Members and Senators who are displaying the type of grit and determination that both TR and LBJ would almost certainly admire. These are the 28 House Democrats and 14 Democratic Senators who’ve voted to advance Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation, often in the face of intense criticism from anti-trade forces.

These Democrats support a forward-looking trade agenda that includes critical priorities for progressives, including strong and enforceable labor and environmental standards, and new rules to protect innovation, to assure open digital commerce, and to “democratize” trade for small business and consumers. As pro-growth Democrats, they understand that increased trade can tap a burgeoning global middle class and help power more inclusive economic growth for middle class Americans.

These Democrats are also realists—and doers. They understand that writing modern rules for liberal trade is a messy and often-thankless task that requires hard work and perseverance. They appreciate that trade is always a negotiation and recognize the need for principled compromise among Congressional colleagues, the Administration, foreign governments, and the many and varied interests that make up America’s economic and social fabric.

While these Democrats know that they won’t achieve everything they seek, they also believe that it is vital to stand with the long line of Democrats—from FDR and Truman to JFK and Bill Clinton—who have progressively built an increasingly effective rules-based trading system that has fostered global peace and prosperity, lifted millions worldwide out of poverty, and continues to deliver substantial benefits to all Americans.

Many Democrats who have opposed TPA say that they support increased trade and stronger trade rules, and that they want to achieve the best deal for America. These TPA critics may be sincere, but they often offer only nebulous ideas on how to achieve these important ends.

Pragmatic, do-something Democrats, on the other hand, recognize the Trade Promotion Authority offers the only realistic, near-term means of achieving the outcomes that so many Democrats claim to want.  They know that our negotiating partners will never table their best and final offers to open markets or raise standards without TPA. And they understand that the United States will never achieve anything meaningful in trade if our trading partners must effectively negotiate with 535 members of Congress. This is especially so after last’s week’s spectacle in which labor and anti-trade groups prevailed on House Democrats to kill worker adjustment assistance—a six-decade Democratic priority—in a cynical bid to scuttle TPA and the overall trade agenda.

Pro-trade Democratic Members understand that key portions of the progressive coalition, including Democrats (58%), millennials (69%), Hispanics (71%), and mayors, believe that trade deals are good for the United States. But they’re not asking Americans to sign a blank check for new agreements. Under the leadership of Senator Ron Wyden, Congressman Ron Kind, and others, they’ve worked hard to assure that TPA includes unprecedented new transparency provisions, including the requirement that the text of any new trade deal be posted on the Internet for months before it is ever brought to a vote.

In a news conference before the NBA Finals, LeBron offered a pithy addendum to his favorite Roosevelt quote. When asked to guarantee a championship, LeBron said that he could only guarantee that “we will play our asses off.”

It’s time for Democrats who say they support expanded trade and progressive rules to get off of the sidelines—and to join the do-something Democrats who are “in the arena” sweating and striving towards those vital goals.