02:19 - Source: CNN
Paul Ryan makes his pitch on a big trade deal

Story highlights

Eric Cantor: Bill Clinton was instrumental in effort to modernize Democratic Party

Republican Party has become more pro-free trade in recent years, he says

Editor’s Note: Eric Cantor is vice chairman and managing director of Moelis & Company, a global independent investment bank. He is a former U.S. House Majority Leader for the Republican Party. The views expressed are his own.

CNN —  

Spend just a little time watching what has been described as a “civil war” within the Democratic Party over the issue of trade policy and you get a real sense of the predicament Hilary Clinton finds herself in.

As secretary of state, Clinton championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in effect continuing the free trade policy shift orchestrated by her husband in the 1990s. But the liberal progressive base of the party for which she is the presumptive presidential nominee has turned dramatically against free trade. Hence, Clinton’s silence on the topic of trade these days.

But the outcome of this “civil war” is about more than just politics – the reality is that it could have a profound impact on America’s future engagement with the world.

A bit of background first, though. Prior to becoming president, Bill Clinton was instrumental in an effort to modernize the Democratic Party on a number of issues, including trade. The Democratic Leadership Council and other “New Democrats” openly advocated for Democrats to adopt a pro-free trade position.

President Clinton, elected as a “New Democrat,” delivered on that promise, completing negotiations on and achieving enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Uruguay Round of GATT, both of which were initiated by his Republican predecessors. Clinton also pushed for, and won, enactment of legislation to allow China to enter the World Trade Organization, and he initiated trade agreements with Chile and Jordan that were ultimately enacted by his Republican successor.

Each of these trade bills passed through the support of Republicans and Democrats. In fact, none of these initiatives would have passed without the active support of Democratic members of Congress. Even on Clinton’s biggest failure on trade – the 1998 defeat of trade promotion authority in Congress – the support and opposition was bipartisan in nature.

During the decade following Clinton’s presidency, the Republican Party became more pro-free trade and the Democratic Party, with a couple exceptions, settled into a pattern where a sizable group of “New Democrats” could be relied upon to support free trade while the remainder of the party was opposed.

What has prompted the growing support for free trade in the Republican Party? In part it is a result of a strengthening economic libertarianism in the GOP. But it also reflects broader electoral changes. As Republican districts have become more conservative overall, Republican officials have less to fear politically from an anti-trade Democratic challenger. In the current debate over Trade Promotion Authority in Congress, lack of trust in President Obama seems to be a more animating factor in Republican concerns than any animus towards free trade.

In the Democratic Party, the residual influence of President Clinton could be seen in the block of normally pro-trade “New Democrats.” However, the ranks of the “New Democrats” in Congress have shrunk, both as result of the expanded GOP majority, and also Democratic districts becoming more liberal.

Today, the ascendant progressive elements of the Democratic Party are working overtime to purge the remaining pro-free trade faction of the party both in Congress and in the contest for the presidential nomination. If they are successful, this will have a profoundly negative impact on America’s ability to be a reliable advocate for free trade.

Of course, the duration of trade negotiations rarely align themselves neatly with the term of office of an American president – each president is faced with completing the work of their predecessor and initiating negotiations they know will have to be completed by their successor. This means that bipartisan support for trade is especially critical when the presidency shifts between parties. And it is doubly critical when the White House and the Congress are controlled by different political parties.

All this means that should trade become just another partisan issue on which Democrats and Republicans neatly divide, the gridlock that has paralyzed the United States on so many other issues will seize the trade agenda.

Bill Clinton correctly understood that the expansion of free trade was a means to improving the economic well-being of all parties to the agreement, and to creating the types of interconnected relationships that ultimately make the world a safer place.

“I believe we have made a decision now that will permit us to create an economic order in the world that will promote more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment, and a greater possibility of world peace,” Clinton said right before he signed NAFTA into law. “We are on the verge of a global economic expansion that is sparked by the fact that the United States at this critical moment decided that we would compete, not retreat.”

With similar moments of decision before us on TPP and TTIP, it is critical that the advocates of engagement prevail in this “civil war” within the Democratic Party. The future prosperity – and security – of the United States depends upon it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

Read CNNOpinion’s new Flipboard magazine.