WASHINGTON — On Tuesday morning, House Democrats unveiled their articles of impeachment against President Trump.
Just one hour later, they handed him a key policy victory.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats announced Tuesday that they’ve hammered out a deal to support the USMCA, a trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada that updates and revises NAFTA.
If the deal passes Congress it’ll be Trump’s biggest policy victory since Republicans slashed corporate and personal tax rates two years ago — and could prove to be a huge political win for Trump, shoring up his populist bona fides for the 2020 election.
“Trump is going to take the fact that there was a bipartisan deal to say his trade policy is working,” Jeff Hauser, a Democratic strategist with deep ties to the labor movement, told VICE News. Pelosi's "wrong on the substance and dangerously wrong on the politics.”
Trump’s 2016 wins were fueled in part by his fierce criticism of international trade deals like NAFTA — a message that helped him sweep through the Midwest. Democrats struck back and won big in 2018 largely by painting him as a phony and a hypocrite on economic issues, hammering him and Republicans for failing to improve infrastructure and threatening voters’ healthcare while slashing tax rates for rich people and big corporations.
Swing state play
Those arguments and the damage Trump’s trade wars have caused helped Democrats sweep the governors’ and Senate races in the three most important swing states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — and make gains elsewhere in the Midwest. They’re likely the strongest message to beat Trump in those states in 2020 en route to ending his presidency. And Pelosi and House Democrats may have just undercut their party’s best argument.
Trump was delighted:
Pelosi defended both the timing of the announcement and her decision to work with Trump’s team.
“There are some people who said ‘why make it look like he has a victory?’ Well, we’re declaring victory for the American worker and what is in this agreement,” she insisted. “Not any one of us is important enough to hold up a trade agreement that is important for American workers because of any collateral benefit that might accrue to any one of us.”
Pelosi has a different calculus than other national Democrats. She wants to see Trump lose, but her overriding goal is to keep House control, and that means reelecting the swing-district Democrats who won in 2018. Many of those are from more suburban districts where well-educated moderates abandoned Trump’s party en masse because of all the chaos and want to see the return of a functional government.
“The people who put us in power in ’18 were a lot of former Republican voters who wanted the craziness to stop. In the middle of impeachment, being able to say we’re not single-mindedly focused on this, we’re doing what we were sent here to do … it’s really brilliant politics,” said Democratic pollster John Hagner.
Hagner argued the upsides for House Democrats were concrete while the chance this helps Trump isn’t so clear-cut.
“The help is real and obvious and significant. The harm is theoretical,” he said.
But House members who win tough districts in wave years often believe it’s because they’ve managed to strike the perfect moderate tone, try to burnish that reputation by splitting with their party on key votes, and get wiped out of office anyways when the other party has a good election anyways. That happened to almost all of the House Democrats who voted against Obamacare in 2010, as well as to most of the Republicans who bucked Trump on Obamacare repeal and his tax cuts heading into the 2018 elections.
Often, their decisions to try to find a win-win for both parties ended up just undercutting their own chances by helping the other side make their case against their party own party.
“Giving Trump bipartisan cover on one of his biggest political vulnerabilities and preventing a potential Democratic President from negotiating a better, more worker-friendly deal in 15 months makes absolutely no political or substantive sense to me,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama.
When Trump sent out his celebratory tweet on USMCA, Pfeiffer warned that the message will soon be used “in ads during Packers, Lions, Steelers, and Eagles [NFL] games” in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Cover: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)