White House’s Threat on Nafta Gives Democrats an Easy Out

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney gave the House Democratic leader a take-it-or-leave-it threat on the new Nafta replacement, while at the same time removing most of the danger for the “leave it” option. If what the White House wants is a ratified agreement, that’s not going to help.

On the one hand, Mulvaney urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to put the new trade plan on the House floor as is, claiming that it would have the votes. The problem is that pressuring Pelosi publicly, and generally turning ratification of the deal into a partisan contest, is a clear losing strategy given that Democrats have the majority in the House: The more Donald Trump and the White House do to divide by party on this trade deal, the deader it will be.

At the same time, Mulvaney opened the door on just sticking with Nafta if the new deal doesn’t get approved, contrary to the president’s threats to attempt to unilaterally pull out of the existing deal. That would certainly appear to take most of the pressure off everyone in Congress. It’s true that exiting Nafta would, if it damaged the economy as expected, harm the president and those in his party the most, so it’s not clear how effective a bluff the threat is in the first place. But at least it’s a reason for Congress to act: Republicans would want to ensure that the president doesn’t do anything self-destructive, and Democrats in trade-dependent districts might worry about their constituents, even if the electoral politics played well for them. But if Nafta is the backstop, then no one is going to worry too much about the new agreement failing.

Mulvaney’s main point seems to have been that no better deal is available from Mexico and Canada. Whether that’s true or not, it’s hardly unusual for Congress to demand changes — and for an administration to use that as leverage in international negotiations. Either way, however, it’s hard to see why Democrats should feel a lot of pressure at this point.

Indeed, it seems quite likely that the new agreement could be an easy “no” for most House Democrats — especially if they know it’s going to lose anyway. For anti-trade Democrats, voting against any trade deal is always good politics. And for those who might be inclined to support trade, it’s always easy to find some reason a proposed deal isn’t as good as it could be. There are very few Democrats, meanwhile, who fear the president in general, given that they just won by running against him and he’s polling just as badly now as he was in November.

What’s more likely is that the trade deal could be a tough one for quite a few House Republicans. They’ll be cross-pressured between the president’s support for the deal and his campaign to demonize trade, especially for those in districts that stand to lose from this deal or where trade is especially unpopular. And Republicans must dread the possibility that after the new Nafta fails, the president really will exit the existing trade bloc — which risks tanking the U.S. economy and dragging down the whole party in 2020.

The same, of course, applies in the Senate — but there, with Republicans in the majority, there’s no chance that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would force a vote if it looks like Republicans would be more at risk from it.

At any rate: The only way this agreement or anything else passes through Congress in 2019 or 2020 is through at least some bipartisan cooperation. Trump’s overall war against congressional oversight makes that harder; so do his partisan campaign rallies and his knee-jerk reaction of always escalating and personalizing every disagreement. Unlike some other Trump ideas, revising Nafta really is just a personal project for him; while there are reasons for various politicians and interest groups to support it, neither party considers it a top priority in any way. So this is one where Trump really has to find some way to persuade everyone to go along. It’s hard to see any sign so far that he — or Mulvaney — have any idea how to do that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.