Hillary's campaign stumbles on trade

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosts a small business forum in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
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Hillary Clinton remains the all-but-certain Democratic nominee for president. But right now her campaign is something of a hot mess, especially on the issue of trade, where pressure from the left is leading her into nonsensical and inconsistent statements.

Clinton was a strong advocate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as secretary of state. And she wrote about the giant Asia trade pact in glowing terms in her pre-campaign book "Hard Choices."

But as the activist left of the party mobilizes against the deal, Clinton now says on the campaign trail that there is stuff in it she doesn't like. And Clinton backed House Minority Leader Nancy's Pelosi's approach, which was to torpedo Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a cherished Democratic program, in order to stop Obama's push for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). But without TPA there is no TPP, which Clinton once strongly supported. Figure that out, if you can.

And many of the former first lady's comments on the topic lately have made no logical sense whatsoever.

This is perhaps the most bizarre: "The TPA is a process issue. The issue for me is what's in the deal," Clinton said this week in New Hampshire. "I think this is a chance to use this leverage so that the deal does become one that more Americans and members of Congress can vote for."

Where to start trying to deconstruct this statement? TPA is not just a process issue. Without it Obama cannot complete TPP because no country is going to offer up major concessions if they fear Congress will just amend the deal. So what kind of leverage was she talking about? TPA is designed to give the administration leverage to get the best trade terms possible. Blocking it would take that leverage away.

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Clinton might as well have said, "I can't anger unions and the left and feed Bernie Sanders' momentum by backing my former boss on TPA so an advisor told me to dismiss it as a 'process issue' so that's what I'm doing even though it makes no sense and everyone knows it."

The Bernie Sanders problem is increasingly real for Clinton. It's impossible to imagine the Democratic Party nominating an avowed socialist for president. But Sanders is drawing close to Clinton in New Hampshire polling and drawing big enthusiastic crowds wherever he goes.

The reason for this is he thrills the activist left with his outspoken (and consistent) opposition to free trade deals and repeated calls for breaking up big banks and otherwise cracking down hard on Wall Street. He is to the left what Eugene McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson were in the past: The genuine progressive article.

So far Clinton is trying to defuse this with her references to overpaid hedge fund managers and now backing off on previous trade support. But just as soon as Hillary Clinton hedged on trade, her husband former President Bill Clinton went on "The Daily Show" and talked up the benefits to American workers and the economy of signing such deals.

Bill Clinton obviously speaks for himself not his wife but these moments can only remind voters that it's hard to know exactly where the Clintons really stand on some of these issues.

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And the heat for Hillary Clinton to clarify her position on trade is only going to rise if the current legislative gambit to get TPA done works, which it probably will. If it does, Obama could finish TPP and send it to Congress. Perhaps Clinton's need to tack so nakedly and embarrassingly to the left will be over by the time that happens and she can return to her previous support for TPP. But she will not have covered herself in glory (or consistency or trustworthiness) by the time that happens.

The whole trade mess points up the central problem with Hillary Clinton's candidacy: Who exactly is she and what does she believe?

Is she the liberal fighter for universal health care? Or the moderate, centrist who backs free trade and sees a pivotal role for Wall Street and the banking industry in the American capitalist system? Is she the foreign policy hawk who backed the second Iraq war and ran to the right of Barack Obama in 2008 or the more dovish 2016 version who admits the Iraq vote was a mistake?

So far the answer has been: Who knows? And attempts by the Clinton campaign to wrap the candidate in gauzy platitudes about grandmotherhood and advocacy for women and girls won't cut it as the primaries and caucuses approach. Hillary Clinton will eventually have to take tough and clear stands on issues like free trade and let voters decide if they like what they hear. Hard choices, indeed.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.