The Memo: Trump tariff move may pay dividends in 2020
President Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports horrify Republican leaders in Congress — but they could yet pay political dividends.
Trump’s move, cast by the White House as an effort to protect American manufacturing, has significant appeal in the Rust Belt states that were pivotal to his shock 2016 election win.
Some Democrats in the region worry that senior figures in their party, especially those whose bases are in affluent coastal cities, are underestimating the political potency of Trump’s announcement.
“It worries me as a Democrat that the national Democrats don’t see that Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin were hurt badly by trade deals,” said David Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party in Ohio.
Betras, whose county includes Youngstown, lamented that “national Democrats have the audacity to give the president shit on that, and they think it’s going to resonate.”
Trump’s victory came in large part because he demolished the “blue wall” comprised of three states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — that had not backed a Republican for president since the 1980s.
Trump won Ohio, traditionally a closely fought battleground and a state President Obama carried twice, by 9 percentage points.
Some prominent Democrats from industrial states have backed Trump on the tariffs, including Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) and Reps. Tim Ryan and Marcy Kaptur, both of Ohio.
The nation’s largest federation of unions, the AFL-CIO, also welcomed Trump’s proposal. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised the tariffs on Twitter as “good steps towards fixing predatory practices that hurt workers & cheat companies that produce in US.”
Senior Republicans have been much more clear-cut in their opposition to Trump’s proposal. The possibility of the tariffs sparking a broader trade war is top of their list of concerns.
Aides to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) took the unusual step of emailing reporters a CNBC story highlighting a negative stock market reaction to the proposal.
“We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House to not advance with this plan,” AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, said in a statement on Monday.
Other Republicans, including Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), have also come out against the plan. Flake tweeted on Monday that “trade wars are not won, only lost.”
The proposal has also drawn criticism from the conservative Club for Growth and the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. Last week, the latter described the tariffs as “the biggest policy blunder” of Trump’s presidency.
But strategists who are more sympathetic to Trump’s political populism argue that trade is just one more issue where the president is more closely aligned with voters than his detractors will admit.
“Is he going against Republican dogma, really? Or is he going against Republican dogma inside the Beltway?” said Andy Surabian, a former special assistant to the president. “There is a major disconnect on the issue of trade between the think tanks and the politicians in Washington, and actual Republican voters across the country.”
Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College and a polling expert in the state, argued that support or opposition to Trump’s tariff plan seems to track more closely with how people make their living than with traditional party allegiance.
“I would identify the support for Trump literally based on the backgrounds of a particular group of people here, and the same with Ohio and Michigan,” he said. “The working-class voters in the steel and old manufacturing areas of my state are with Trump on this. They think they have been badly treated by the trade deals.”
During a media briefing Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders jabbed back at Ryan and other GOP critics.
She said that while the administration had a good relationship with Ryan, “that doesn’t mean we agree on everything. We want to do everything we can to protect American workers.”
Sanders also suggested that lawmakers should not be so shocked by Trump’s move.
“If they were caught off guard, they simply haven’t been listening to what he’s been saying and what he’s been talking about and how he’s promised to make good trade deals,” she said.
Earlier in the day, Trump told reporters “we’re not backing down” on tariffs. The United States, he added, has been “ripped off by virtually every country in the world, whether it’s friend or enemy.”
Betras, the Ohio Democrat, argued that his party colleagues needed to answer Trump with an argument that resonates with working-class voters, rather than merely poking fun at his fractious and unconventional style.
“He is playing to five states. He is not stupid. Everyone makes him out to be this idiot. He’s playing to the voters of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Iowa. That’s who these tariffs are for,” he said.
Those voters, Betras added, “don’t care one way or another whether the president is off-kilter on a number of issues. What they care about is that he is talking about jobs and how he can get them jobs.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.