Trump's Unlikely Allies on Trade -- Democrats
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown reached out to discuss ways in which they could work together on trade policy. At first glance, it would seem an unlikely pairing -- a New York billionaire and the scruffy Ohio lawmaker who was on Hillary Clinton’s shortlist for vice president -- but both had been railing against unfair trade deals for decades.
“Great letter,” Trump responded in a handwritten note. "I will never let you down."
Fast-forward to earlier this month, when Trump hastily announced he would be placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, a proposal deemed sacrilegious by traditional Republican orthodoxy and sure to win him few allies. One of them was Brown, who welcomed action he said could stop China from dumping steel into the U.S. market, calling it “well overdue.”
Such an alliance has incensed Republicans, even those closest to Trump, who are concerned the tariff push will undermine the benefits they hope to reap from a good economy and new tax cuts while boosting rivals they need to defeat in November. Other manufacturing-state Democrats like Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, applauded Trump’s move. And Democrat Conor Lamb, who is proving to be competitive in next week’s special election in a Trump district outside of Pittsburgh, also backed the proposal -- even using it to outflank his opponent, Rick Saccone, who also supports tariffs.
Trump was expected to officially roll out the new tariffs during an afternoon ceremony at the White House on Thursday, but the status of the policy is still unclear. He will also hold a rally in that Pittsburgh-area district this weekend, where he believes his trade policies will benefit Saccone. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Wednesday that the policy could potentially include exceptions for Canada and Mexico, depending on U.S. national security interests. Lawmakers hope the president will outline specifics of the plan, having seen the initial announcement spook allies and spark talk of retaliation from U.S. trade partners.
The president has long been consistent on trade policy, a rarity compared to his twists and turns on most other issues, and his stance helped steal away working-class voters from Democrats in 2016. Trump’s allies have portrayed the tariffs as a promise kept to constituents, and argue the president has a unique bond with voters in the Rust Belt and the Midwest. But Republicans fear that that constituency is still narrow, particularly in a midterm election year.
“It scrambles political alliances as part of a political appeal to a narrow band of voters, mostly residing in areas where the steel industry may be concentrated. But the negative consequences are potentially much broader and longer lasting,” warned Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “Tariffs and trade fights have the potential to wipe out some of the economic optimism being felt around the country, and that was a key asset for the president and Republicans heading into 2018 midterms.”
Ahead of Thursday’s rollout, over 100 House Republicans signed a letter written by Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, urging the president to reconsider his decision in order to “avoid unintended negative consequences to the U.S. economy and its workers.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that Republicans fear the proposal "could metastasize into a larger trade war.” And Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, also raised concerns, signaling how members of the GOP are worried about electoral consequences.
But the exit Tuesday of White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, who was seen as the last line of defense against Trump’s protectionist trade policies, made clear that the president would push forward despite the political and policy ramifications. Though many Republicans have lamented Cohn’s departure, Trump supporters are likely to cheer it. The former Goldman Sach executive and registered Democrat always seemed antithetical to Trump’s campaign message, particularly on prescriptions for the economy.
Brown is running for re-election this year in Ohio, which Trump won by eight percentage points. But his support for the president’s tariff plan has less to do with that and more to do with seeing an issue he has long championed finally elevated and acted upon. “This has been really one of the causes of Sherrod’s career, working to fix the trade dynamic that has really sold out a ton of Ohio workers across the state,” said his campaign manager, Justin Barasky. “When Trump says he wants to do something about it, Sherrod is unsurprisingly going to be supportive of doing something.”
Brown has long been a critic of free-trade agreements, opposing NAFTA since its inception when he was a congressman. He is in frequent contact with Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer. And while the Democratic base demands party lawmakers defy Trump at every turn, Brown sees his stance on trade as central to his own identity. Railing against China and currency manipulation was a centerpiece of his 2012 re-election campaign, for example.
The position also allows him to squeeze his opponent, Rep. Jim Renacci, whom the president has endorsed. Renacci is waiting for the details of the tariff policy before announcing whether he supports it. The congressman is looking for a “balance between free trade and fair trade,” his spokeswoman said.
The plan is finding unlikely allies on the House side, too. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Youngstown who has been critical of his party’s leadership, especially on economic issues, backs tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, with the caveat that they be tailored toward China and exempt North American and European allies.
“We can't just be against it because Trump is proposing it,” Ryan said in an interview with RCP. “There’s nobody in our region of the country who has been working in the manufacturing world who doesn't completely understand what the Chinese steel dumping has done. It’s hollowing out our neighborhoods and downtowns.”
Ryan said he was disappointed with the way in which Trump first announced the plan, comparing him to a “bull in a china shop” and criticizing him for laying out too broad an approach that unnecessarily rattled the stock market. But, he is imploring his Democratic colleagues to embrace the proposal’s fundamentals.
“It's a lot more than just tariffs; it signals a real understanding that you get the working-class issues,” he said. “While it's not necessarily a silver bullet, it communicates to everyone that you’re willing to be tough on the elite who will benefit from these global trade agreements. You’re signaling a lot by being for this and understanding the issue.”
Ryan points to the way in which Lamb has been able to compete in a district Trump won by 17 points. "For too long, China has been making cheap steel and they've been flooding the market with it. It's not fair and it's not right,” Lamb said during a debate with Saccone last week, calling Trump’s plan long overdue.
His opponent also embraced the policy, arguing that "our competitors around the world have slanted the playing field, and their thumb has been on the scale and I think President Trump is trying to even that scale back out.” But Lamb, who enjoys union support then accused Saccone of supporting construction projects that use foreign steel. The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette backed Trump on tariffs in an editorial this week, "The president was elected to defend American workers. He ran on this issue. It would be ludicrous if he reneged on his promise to act decisively on trade.”
Unions have also been supportive. “This is a great first step toward addressing trade cheating, and we will continue to work with the administration on rewriting trade rules to benefit working people,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Pennsylvania’s Casey, who is also up for re-election in a state Trump narrowly won, saw the tariff announcement as aligned with his priorities. “When countries cheat on trade, Pennsylvania workers lose. I urge the administration to follow through and to take aggressive measures to ensure our workers can compete on a level playing field.”
But his colleague Pat Toomey, a Republican and former president of the conservative Club for Growth, calls it a “big mistake.”
Red state Democrats up for re-election this year are waiting to see what the actual policy looks like, but have previously echoed sentiments expressed by their party colleagues. “As senators from leading steel and iron ore producing states, we have seen firsthand how this steel dumping has displaced American steelworkers,” wrote Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters last spring ahead of Trump’s visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We respectfully urge you to make it clear to President Xi that Chinese steel dumping and illegal trade practices are unacceptable.”
But elsewhere, the political benefits for Democrats are less clear. In Wisconsin, a state Trump carried by just one point -- and that global trade skeptic Bernie Sanders won in the Democratic primary -- Republican Gov. Scott Walker has spent the past week denouncing the plan.
“Despite good intentions, the @POTUS proposed tariffs could put places like Bemis Co. and its 5,000 Wisconsin workers at risk. That’s why I am respectfully asking him to reconsider,” Walker, who is running for re-election this year, tweeted Wednesday.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a liberal who also faces re-election in Wisconsin in November, has been more cautious than some of her colleagues, saying she would like to see the plan’s details before weighing in. She has expressed concern about the ramifications of broad tariffs, and the fallout of a trade war on drivers of her state’s economy, including agriculture. Leaders of the Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson company, who met with Trump early in his presidency, have vehemently opposed the proposal, arguing it would hamper expansion.
Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said the Wisconsin electorate was drawn to Trump’s “tough guy, negotiator, shake things up” persona more than trade specifically. “For Walker to take this very aggressive, forward-looking position and tell the president ‘no way’ speaks volumes,” Scholz said.