Rep. Tim Ryan was worked up, telling reporters that the Trump administration’s promise to start renegotiating NAFTA was too flimsy to trust.
“Our workers unbolted the machines from the factory floor and put them in a box to ship them to China!” said Ryan (D-Ohio) at a midday news conference with fellow Rust Belt Democrats. “We’ve got to get off the dime here! I’m ready to be part of fixing this problem, but we need a little more seriousness from the executive branch.”
But despite booking a studio underneath the Capitol, Ryan and the rest of his trade-skeptical Democrats had attracted almost no media interest. A podium for TV cameras was empty; a couple of staffers, with iPhones trained on Facebook Live, were recording the remarks for posterity.
Trade, the issue that Trump used to cleave reliably Democratic voters away from Hillary Clinton last year, could be a weakness for his administration. A president who told Midwestern voters that he would start tearing up “the single worst trade deal” in the history of economics had taken until Thursday to start doing so.
Even then, the White House’s first move — as required by the treaty — was to start a 90-day clock, a period for Congress to consult the administration. According to U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, whose landslide confirmation vote attracted most Rust Belt Democrats, the goal was to “build on what has worked in NAFTA but change and improve what has not,” hardly the sledgehammer approach suggested during the campaign.
In that campaign, Democrats gritted their teeth as Trump rounded on Clinton for backing the Trans-Pacific Partnership — and even for NAFTA, signed by her husband. But the party’s leadership and potential 2020 leaders have no such trade baggage, which allowed them to spend Thursday predicting a Republican sellout.
“Simply saying you’re going to renegotiate NAFTA doesn’t get us where we need to go,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents the city of Flint.
“So far all we’ve seen are tepid talking points,” said Rep. Marc Pocan (D-Wis.).
“Trump’s objective is to change as little as possible while saying he changed as much as possible,” snarked Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.). “He will seek something visual that he can go visit.”
Comments such as those reflected not just the long-term preferences of the Democratic Party but months of hand-wringing about how Trump absconded with one of the party’s issues — and how Clinton lost blue-collar white voters. But as the Trump administration announced its new NAFTA position, Democrats were gasping for airtime. Democrats in swing states often responded like Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who said “the announcement is a welcome step” before asking for “real details.” Democrats in safer seats quickly predicted a sellout.
“Instead of being clear that Mexico will be required to change their laws and bring their practices into compliance with internationally recognized labor standards, they have stated that these are ‘sensitive’ issues,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.). “There will be no change in NAFTA, and there will be no stemming the loss of the U.S. jobs, unless this issue of labor costs is fully addressed. It must be front and center in any renegotiation.”