It’s by now undeniable that President Donald Trump expects to get his way – all the time.
So imagine the surprise in the White House this week when the Wall Street Journal carried an op-ed from the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa delivered a sober message: If the president doesn’t cancel tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico, Trump’s beloved rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement “is dead.”
“It’s time for the tariffs to go,” Grassley says. And if they “aren’t lifted,” NAFTA 2.0 is toast: “There is no appetite in Congress to debate” the new treaty “with these tariffs in place.”
This is just what the president loves: a high-stakes game of legislative chicken over one of his top campaign promises. But with Republicans and Democrats both raising fresh objections to the proposed treaty, and with Canada and Mexico signaling they can’t get behind new changes, Team Trump is scrambling to bolster support in Congress.
Good luck with that, and with threatening to unilaterally withdraw from the 25-year-old NAFTA – a favorite trick of Mr. Art of the Deal.
The president looks increasingly disinclined to dump NAFTA because doing so invites uncertainty, even chaos, for industries that tend to be clustered in the industrial Midwest. Places like Michigan and Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – places Trump needs to win in 2020.
Exiting the North American treaty would roil equity markets, whose bullish run Trump considers a barometer for this presidency. And with the presidential race beginning to take shape, the president doesn’t need to hand Democrats another metaphoric club to beat him with.
None of those outcomes would advance Trump’s economic argument for re-election, even if bolting NAFTA would showcase his predilection for staking maximal positions in negotiations – and then caving when the price rises too high.
After two years of GOP control in Congress, the new political reality is unforgiving: As the White House defies myriad requests for documents and witnesses, a Democratic House led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi has precisely zero motivation to give Trump a win on trade.
And the president’s alleged friends in organized labor aren’t proving so friendly. They want tougher provisions to narrow wage gaps between American and Mexican workers, and more safeguards for workers in U.S. companies.
The Art of the Deal, indeed.
Trump came to the Oval Office with his fellow Republicans controlling Congress and the agenda. The mid-terms changed all that, and now the president is learning that congressional Democrats – and even some hard-nosed Senate Republicans – have no obligation to salute and say, “yes sir.”
That’s what equal branches of government means. Back in the good ‘ol Obama days, Democrats frequently lamented the “obstruction” that Republicans routinely practiced on the latest White House proposal.
The other party is called “the opposition” for a reason. Its job is to oppose, not acquiesce. And it’s a president’s job to make his case – or suffer the consequences.
Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.