Pelosi Balances Impeachment and USMCA With Eye on 2020 Elections

(Bloomberg) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled off a delicate political maneuver by announcing in quick succession articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump as well as the delivery of a trade deal that’s one of his highest priorities.

The seemingly conflicting turn of events in the space of a single hour on Tuesday illustrates the political landscape Pelosi faces heading into the 2020 election year that will decide control of the White House and Congress.

Pelosi Balances Impeachment and USMCA With Eye on 2020 Elections

Pelosi had long expressed wariness about impeaching Trump despite pressure from the party’s progressive wing. The public is generally split on the issue, and it could put at risk the 31 House Democrats elected from districts Trump won. Her keeping the speaker’s gavel depends on those “majority makers” remaining in office.

At the same time, she has insisted she was determined to win House approval the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade, which is favored by moderate Democrats in swing districts and opposed by progressives.

“Personally, I am not thrilled with how this has developed,” said New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a USMCA opponent who has become a star of the Democratic left. “But I understand that there are more conservative members of the party that they want to communicate to their constituents that we are ‘doing something’ while impeachment is happening.”

While impeachment is a political blow for Trump, getting USMCA approved by Congress is a clear victory. He now goes into his re-election able to tout fulfillment of a central campaign promise -- replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he’s derided as a disaster for U.S. workers.

Leaving the White House for a political rally Tuesday, Trump said the agreement on USMCA is “silver lining” to the House drawing up articles of impeachment. “Without the impeachment they would have never approved it, in my opinion,” he added.

But it was Pelosi who was in front of the cameras announcing final changes had been agreed to and that the House would move to a speedy vote by next week. She said Democrats had taken a flawed agreement negotiated by Trump and strengthened numerous provisions, including labor rights that were a high priority of the party’s union allies.

“If we have the opportunity to advance the well-being of America’s workers, we should walk away from it because of him? It’s just not worth it in my view,” Pelosi said Tuesday at a Politico event. “It’s way far away from what the president was proposing. He wouldn’t even recognize it.”

Pelosi also has countered the biggest weapon being used by Trump and Republicans heading into the next election: That Democrats are so obsessed with impeachment they are ignoring everything else.

”Nancy Pelosi and Democrats have been saying for quite awhile they can do impeachment and get something done,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “And today they did.”

Pelosi and Democrats frequently point to the more than 400 bills passed by the House in the last year, most of which have languished in the Republican-controlled Senate. Democrats in Republican-leaning districts said USMCA deal helps them shine a light on what they’ve done, even amid the impeachment drama.

Democrats must demonstrate “that we are able to advance what is in the best interest of our country while still being able to hold a sitting president accountable to the rule of law in our country,” said Representative Ron Kind, who’s western Wisconsin district narrowly voted for Trump in 2016. “That is something people back home expect us to do.”

Bill Reinsch, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said impeachment may have made it easier for Pelosi to keep Democrats in line on the trade deal.

“Her caucus is divided between the left and the center,” he said. “She needs to pay close attention to the demands of both groups. Impeachment addresses the concerns of the left, which, in turn, gives her a bit more flexibility to also take on something that her center cares about.”

Republican Attacks

Republicans are keeping up their attacks on Democrats over putting impeachment ahead of the trade legislation -- with some modifications.

“The only reason she finally relented was the unpopularity of impeachment itself,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said of Pelosi moving forward with the trade deal. “Waiting a year, she has weakened America.”

McCarthy argued that Pelosi held up the accord because she hoped to trigger a recession in order to see Trump lose re-election.

Some Democrats fretted that the deal would hand Trump a triumph and bolster his popularity.

Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey said voters wouldn’t understand that Democrats had improved the deal and would just chock it up as a Trump “win.”

“When you are explaining, you are losing,” he said.

Giving Cover

Others said that the deal could hurt the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.

“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,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter.

Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist who was a top aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said going ahead with the trade deal approval could dilute the party’s 2020 message.

He said outside Democrat-aligned groups, including Priorities USA and American Bridge, have been running ads in presidential battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania targeting white middle-income voters emphasizing Trump’s broken promises on the economy. Now, the president’s campaign can run ads in those same states highlighting a key pledge that has been fulfilled.

“It’s somewhat shortsighted to strike a deal right now with the president,” he said.

But Council on Foreign Relations trade analyst Edward Alden said that by winning major concessions and securing support from the country’s biggest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, Pelosi can insulate her moderates from attacks from the left and help the party take advantage of the the fact that polls show rising support for trade among Democratic voters.

“She is giving him a win but Trump is giving her a win. She got a lot in exchange for her support of this agreement,” Alden said. “It is impossible to imagine a Republican Congress approving these provisions that Pelosi was able to secure if they came from a Democratic president.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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