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JANUARY 29, 2024
On the Prospect website
America Is Not a Democracy
The movement to save democracy from threats is too quick to overlook the problems that have been present since the founding. BY DAVID DAYEN
After redistricting created another heavily Black congressional district, nearly a dozen candidates have put themselves forward. BY TOBY JAFFE
Massachusetts Wakes Up to a Hospital Nightmare
Erstwhile Boston media darling Steward Health Care has been strip-mining hospitals for a decade now. The power elite may finally be paying attention. BY MAUREEN TKACIK
Kuttner on TAP
Politico’s Hit Job on U.S. Trade Rep Katherine Tai
A complex tug-of-war has been happening over the direction of Biden’s trade policy. Politico serves as a handy receptacle for Tai’s enemies to paint Tai as the problem.
President Biden has broken with several decades of orthodox trade policy. He has been willing to subordinate the traditional corporate brand of trade deals to a "worker-centered" industrial and trade policy. He has partly sacrificed the sacred cow of past trade deals, the World Trade Organization, in favor of the national economic interest. And as bargaining levers against China, he has retained some of the tariffs imposed by President Trump.

Since corporations were the primary beneficiaries of the now discarded model, and since thousands of trade experts, in and out of government (and often in revolving doors), have based their entire careers on the old approach, there is a fierce undertow of adversaries attempting to discredit Biden’s shift.

Caught in the middle is Biden’s U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai. That’s where the infighting gets viciously personal.

Unlike previous trade reps, Tai does not have a direct relationship with her president. She has also inherited a career staff, many of whom resent and undermine the new direction of trade policy. Of the few officials whom she does get to appoint, many have been imposed by the White House and are not in sympathy with either Tai or Biden’s trade agenda.

The latest example is the nomination of Nelson Cunningham, a longtime corporate trade consultant, to be Tai’s deputy. The nomination is opposed by leading Democratic senators and may well fall of its own weight.
What I’ve just written is factual. But here’s how Politico begins its latest hit job against Tai, titled "Staff Exodus Signals End to Biden’s Trade Dreams":

Frustration with a stalled trade agenda and unhappiness with the leadership of President Joe Biden’s trade chief [Tai] is pushing more than a half-dozen senior trade officials out the door, according to four current and former administration officials with knowledge of the departures.

The piece goes on:

"She’s really tough on people, and she hasn’t figured out a way to have relationships in other parts of the administration, which is how you do your job," said one official familiar with the staffing issues. "The morale [problem] is more about that than anything else. Other agencies aren’t having these kinds of departures."

This piece could be used in a journalism class as a textbook case of how to let yourself be used by one side of a political dispute, relying on a blind quote by a self-interested party to the dispute, using an ad hominem (ad feminam in this case) argument.

The six people are in fact leaving for a variety of reasons, some personal, some reflecting the fact that they are on the losing side of a policy argument that Biden and Tai have been winning, and have decided to move on. But how convenient to make this about Tai’s supposed management and interpersonal deficiencies.

In fact, contrary to Politico’s misleading title, "Biden’s trade dreams" are doing just fine. What is in trouble is the trade dream of the free-trade establishment.

Well down in the Politico piece, the author, trade specialist Gavin Bade, feels obligated to quote some people giving the other side of the argument. In the past, Bade, whom I’ve never talked to, has been more fair-minded and factual. You have to wonder if the misleading tilt in the piece came from his editors.

In paragraph 12, we get the following: "One staff member who has served under six trade representatives said she’s much less harsh than some of her predecessors. ‘She doesn’t come down on people,’ said the staffer. ‘She kicks the tires on arguments. And sometimes those arguments don’t hold up.’"

Exactly. That could have been the lede.
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