The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left

The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left
© Greg Nash

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi preparing for House to decide presidency if neither Trump or Biden win electoral college: report Trump seeks boost from seniors with 0 drug discount coupons GOP senators confident Trump pick to be confirmed by November MORE’s (D-Calif.) decision to strike a trade deal with President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE has given a new and sharp edge to a key tactical debate in Democratic circles.

The central question is whether vigorous, blanket opposition to Trump is the best approach for the party or whether it is also necessary to show an ability to work across the aisle on some issues.


The first approach finds its purest expression in the effort to impeach Trump, which is nearing a conclusion. The second encompasses more accommodating moves on topics such as drug pricing and trade.

Pelosi has sought to minimize the role that political strategy played in her decision to back the deal on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), a de facto successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

But virtually no one, including her strongest supporters, believe that a Speaker of Pelosi’s canniness would, though sheer coincidence, announce support for a trade deal on the same day that House Democrats released formal articles of impeachment against Trump.

Pelosi sought to couch her position in terms of the greater good. 

“If someone gets a collateral benefit from something, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the benefit that was for our country, pass up that opportunity,” she said at an event hosted by Politico. 

“If he has a collateral benefit, so be it,” she added later.

But others, especially in more left-leaning circles, don’t see it that way at all. 

“If you are calling a president illegitimate and corrupt, you can’t then give him the big wins that he will need when he goes into key states,” said progressive strategist Rebecca Katz. “He gets to brag about his victories.”

Trump has already been doing some bragging, contending that Democrats had supported the USMCA to distract from impeachment “because they’re embarrassed by it.”

That is an exaggeration, given that impeachment has been far from the political disaster for Democrats that some predicted at the outset. 

An Economist-YouGov poll conducted last week showed a plurality of Americans backing both Trump’s impeachment (45 percent to 39 percent) and his removal from office (47 percent to 40 percent). Even independent voters in the poll backed Trump’s ouster, albeit by a thinner margin of 40 percent to 37 percent.

That said, there is clearly some nervousness among Democrats about the repercussions of impeachment in competitive districts and in battleground states.

Pelosi herself had been resistant to impeachment throughout former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s investigation into allegations of Russian collusion, only changing her mind when details of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine were revealed.

Her caucus appears to be strongly behind the trade deal. So too is the nation’s largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO. Its president, Richard Trumka, called it an agreement that “working people can proudly support.”

But that view is far from universal on the left.

Progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Will Democrats attempt to pack the Supreme Court again? On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline MORE (D-N.Y.) has told reporters that she is “leaning no” on the deal. 

Referring to her own district in Queens and the Bronx, she added, “There’s always the dynamic of ‘I’m in a deep-blue district, so what do I know about winning over swing voters?’ … But I do also represent a working-class district, and I certainly believe that a Democratic president would negotiate a better deal.”

Jonathan Tasini, a Democratic strategist who is supporting Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote MORE (I-Vt.) in the 2020 presidential race, insisted that “you cannot fix so-called free trade deals. I don’t consider this a Democratic victory, where you are ceding, to corporate power, more rights and privileges.”

Tasini was also scathing toward the idea that backing the deal would show a bipartisanship that would be rewarded by voters.

“I suppose the political calculus is that we are going to show some sort of quote-unquote ‘progress.’ I am not for bipartisan ‘lovemaking.’ I think that has been a complete sham,” he said.

That said, the fact that Democratic voices of dissent are relatively few tells its own story — not just about the substance of the deal but about the belief that it is important for the party to counter Trump’s charge that they are leading a “do-nothing” Congress.

Most of Pelosi’s members also revere her political skills. 

“She is an unbelievably savvy, strategic thinker,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee that’s working on trade, told The Hill on Tuesday. Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) called her a “wise general.”

The question, though, is whether Pelosi’s focus on her own caucus, understandable though it is, puts her at odds with those whose sole priority is ousting Trump from the White House. 

Democratic presidential candidates have been noticeably reticent about weighing in on the deal, with Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Democrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds MORE (D-Mass.) considered by many to be the most likely to oppose it.

For others in the Democratic world, the question is why party leaders would dilute their focus just as Trump is on the cusp of becoming the third president in history to be impeached.

Katz, the progressive strategist, noted the age-old political maxim, “Don’t step on your own message.”

“The American people need to hear why Trump is being impeached by the House of Representatives,” she said. “Anything else steps on that message.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. Scott Wong contributed reporting.