Trump Has Lost on the Wall. Now He Can’t Win on Trade

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump says he’s unenthusiastic about the spending package Congress has settled on to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. That’s no surprise. Although the details of the deal aren’t entirely clear, it certainly looks as if he’s wound up worse off  than he would have if he had backed down in December and avoided the 39-day government shutdown. The new plan contains less money for fewer miles of new border barriers. Even if the administration gets more flexibility about where to spend the funds (also uncertain so far), the $1.375 billion in the package is nothing like full the $5.7 billion he had asked for. Or, as Greg Sargent puts it, this is basically a surrender

The episode brings the truth about Republican members of Congress into the open: Although they have little interest in dragging down the Republican president, they also aren’t willing to give him anything on policy. The border wall has been a good test case. Unlike the tax cut or repealing Obamacare or confirming conservative judges, the wall was basically a Trump project rather than a regular Republican idea. And he couldn’t manage to get it funded, either in the Republican-majority 115th Congress or the new, Democrat-controlled 116th. And even on taxes and health care, Republicans in Congress basically ignored the long list of unorthodox preferences Trump has pushed over time. Instead, they moved ahead with what they would have done if Marco Rubio or Scott Walker or an autosigning machine had been president. 

But the wall is far less of a big deal than the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, which needs to be ratified by both chambers of Congress. 

Here’s the problem. Trade policy tends to split the parties because winners and losers don’t line up very well with party divisions. So, for example, Republican Senator Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania is already saying that the North American Free Trade Agreement has benefited his state and that its replacement, the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement, wouldn’t be as good. Meanwhile, Democrats have a partisan incentive to avoid giving Trump a big win. And Republicans, even with the president backing this deal, have to overcome their constituents’ mistrust of trade pacts, which Trump has fueled for the last three-plus years. It doesn’t help that the USMCA isn’t all that different from Nafta, which means that a lot of members from both parties will worry that they’ll be vulnerable to anti-trade rhetoric if they support it.

In other words, there’s a lot of opposition to the new treaty, and good reason to think it’s in a lot of trouble.

As with his wall, Trump seems to think he has a winning move to play: If Congress doesn’t give him what he wants, he’s threatening to unilaterally take the U.S. out of Nafta, leaving lawmakers with a choice of the new deal or nothing. That’s basically a variation on the only negotiating move Trump has used in his time in the White House: Walk away from the table and threaten to ruin the nation in hopes that all the reasonable people will give him what he wants.

In fact, there’s still talk that Trump may veto the current spending deal after failing to get involved in any of the negotiations. Perhaps he hopes Congress will override him so he can avoid taking responsibility for failing to get his border wall. Another plausible outcome is that if he vetoes, enough Republicans would back him, and the attempt to override would fail, leading to a government shutdown at the end of the week. Trump and a few Republicans would take the blame. And of course even if the veto ploy “worked” — that is, that Congress would override and keep the government open — it would still amount to a show of weakness by the president. 

The threat to pull out of Nafta probably isn’t any more likely to get results than the December shutdown. Republican senators are already lining up against Trump on it. If he ignores them and moves forward anyway, Congress probably won’t give in to his bullying and ratify his treaty. That’s even more likely now that Trump demonstrated during the shutdown showdown how easy it is to roll him and how bad he is at playing this game. And once again, as was the case during the shutdown, the blame will fall squarely on the president.

There was, of course, another option. Trump could have sought buy-in from a bipartisan range of key senators and members of the House as the trade negotiations were going on. He also could have spent the last two years choosing his battles carefully and fighting hard to win the ones that he took on. And he could have staffed his White House with experienced, competent professionals who knew the players in each policy area and how to work with them. 

Instead, he’s in big danger of suffering another big defeat. Richard Neustadt said long ago that the White House is no place for amateurs — but Trump’s failure to learn on the job is almost as astonishing as how unprepared he was for it in the first place.

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.

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