WASHINGTON — On a trip to Australia in 2012, Hillary Rodham Clinton lavished praise on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, calling it the "gold standard" in efforts to create open and fair trade.
Now, early in her Democratic presidential campaign, she's striking a different tone — determinedly noncommittal, with a hint of skepticism about the sweeping trade agreement she promoted as President Barack Obama's secretary of state. "Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security," Clinton said at a New Hampshire community college last week.
The 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership under negotiation by Obama has divided the Democratic Party, leaving Clinton caught between angry liberal activists and the president she once served. It's a fight Clinton has seen before.
She went from backing the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s to renouncing it during her first presidential bid in the 2008 campaign — her positions on trade shifting several times over her decades in politics.
Now, Republicans are pressing for a closer look at what she's said and done on trade, with the Republican National Committee filing a request under the public-records law for her State Department correspondence with the U.S. trade representative.
At the same time, key Democratic constituencies are pressing Clinton to take a firmer stance against the emerging deal, which would eliminate tariffs and many other trade barriers for the U.S., Canada and Asian countries in their commerce with each other.
"The labor movement opposes Fast Track," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Tuesday, referencing congressional legislation that would speed passage of the pact. "We expect those who seek to lead our nation forward to oppose Fast Track. There is no middle ground."
Potential Democratic rivals are using Clinton's history to question her commitment to protecting U.S. workers.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who may seek the Democratic nomination, sought to delay consideration of the pact, calling it a "job-killing" deal "negotiated in secret." He has long opposed trade liberalization.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is expected to launch a Democratic campaign this spring, is also against so-called fast-track legislation, which lets the administration negotiate an agreement that Congress can only vote for or against, not amend.
In a fundraising email entitled "Hard Choice?" — a likely reference to Clinton's memoirs, "Hard Choices" — O'Malley said a fast track on the Pacific deal would produce an agreement that "could depress wages and cost us jobs. That's the last thing we need right now."
Clinton's support for trade deals has fluctuated with the political calendar.
As first lady, she trumpeted the North American deal brokered by her husband, telling unionized garment workers in 1996 that the agreement was "proving its worth." In her 2003 memoir, she noted that the deal was "unpopular with labor unions" but "an important administration goal."
Her support for trade pacts began softening during her time as a New York senator, when she voted for trade agreements with Chile, Singapore, Oman, and Morocco but opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
In a November 2007 presidential debate, Clinton described the North American agreement, with Canada and Mexico, as "a mistake" and called for a "trade timeout."
In that vein, she said she opposed then-pending trade agreements with Korea, Columbia, and Panama. But fast-forward to July 2011 when, as secretary of state, she described those three deals as "critical to our economic recovery."
Trade is polarizing, she said then, but "done right, it creates jobs."
She also repeatedly lent her support to the Pacific trade initiative being pushed by her boss, Obama, at that time, saying she wanted to "expedite the negotiations as much as possible" and describing the deal as including "strong protections for workers and the environment."
Now, as a candidate, that enthusiasm appears to have waned.
Her campaign put out a statement saying Clinton would be "watching closely" to see if the final agreement strengthens national security, protects workers, raises wages, and creates more U.S. jobs. She believes "we should be willing to walk away from any outcome that falls short of these tests," her campaign said.
Clinton's equivocation is being described by the White House as support for the deal. Obama, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, said Clinton wants "to see a trade agreement that is strong on labor, strong on the environment, helps U.S. workers, helps the U.S. economy. That's my standard as well, and I'm confident that standard can be met."
As for O'Malley, while he takes a hard line against the Pacific deal, he endorsed trade liberalization generally in the past — not least because it's important to the Port of Baltimore. He opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2006, saying it would outsource jobs, but backed the 2011 deal with South Korea, noting the United Auto Workers union also supported it.
He branded the Pacific deal a "race to the bottom, a chasing of lower wages abroad," in a National Public Radio interview.