(Andrew Harnik/AP)
Opinion writer

It’s still possible that President Trump will secure a good trade deal with China. But it’s looking more plausible that we face a protracted, destructive trade war and that Trump will end up with either no deal or a bad deal, either of which would badly undercut him on a signature issue heading into 2020, particularly if the extensive damage from his trade war continues to mount.

Yet it’s hard to escape the sense that Democrats are eyeing this debate from a defensive crouch. As Catherine Rampell notes, the 2020 candidates have mostly been “muted” and “mealy-mouthed” in their criticism of Trump’s handling of the issue, blasting him for not going far enough against China, rather than forcefully pointing out that his brand of protectionism has, so far, been disastrous for the country, including for his constituencies.

But why? My best guess: This is another issue where Democrats have decided Trump has a mystical hold over the industrial Midwest. Trump’s demolishing of the “blue wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin was so traumatic that Democrats just can’t shake the impression that he has a spider-sense of how this issue plays there that they can’t begin to fathom.

You saw this for a time with immigration as well, but after Trump made the border central to the 2018 elections, leading to the biggest GOP wipeout since Watergate, that spell was mostly broken. On trade, maybe not so much.

But I’d like to suggest another way. If things continue, Democrats will have a major opening to reframe the trade debate in their favor, by replacing the “free trade vs. protectionism" frame with a “reality-based multilateralism vs. destructive unilateral America-First Trumpism" frame.

Joshua Green has a good report on the argument among the 2020 Democratic candidates over who is best positioned to win back the Midwest. As Green notes, the only top-tier Democrat who voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump campaigned relentlessly against, is Joe Biden.

That raises questions as to whether the other Democrats — particularly Bernie Sanders, a longtime critic of NAFTA, and Elizabeth Warren, who helped sink the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — might fare better than Biden on this issue against Trump, who would hit Biden with the same populist attacks he waged against Hillary Clinton.

It’s not clear how much this will matter to Democratic primary voters. As Green notes, Trump has so polarized the issue of trade that many Democratic voters now support what pollsters call “free trade."

What’s more, as Green also notes, it’s not clear whether other Democrats are right in arguing that Biden would be debilitated on this issue against Trump, since he’s got deep labor support and is associated in the region with Barack Obama’s bailout of the auto companies.

All those things will be litigated in the primaries. But either way, it seems plausible that whoever the Dem nominee is, the truly dominant factor will be Trump’s failures on the issue.

Biden’s team already appears to appreciate this. As Green reports:

Despite his early stumble on China, his advisers say he’s prepared to weather attacks on his trade record, wherever they come from, and roll out a plan of his own. That will likely include calls for better worker and environmental protections — and a multilateral approach to getting tougher on China, to contrast with Trump’s volatile solo style.

Whether or not NAFTA support is a liability, the Democratic nominee, whoever she is, will likely embrace some sort of progressive trade agenda that restores multilateral cooperation, with an eye toward agreements that boost wage and labor standards, and a multilateral response to Chinese trade practices.

Trump crows about his toughness toward China. But as Paul Krugman notes, Trump hasn’t built an international coalition against China’s abuses. Instead, he’s waging trade wars on multiple fronts, infuriating allies, so the war with China is better seen as an outgrowth of a broader series of disasters flowing from his xenophobic nationalism and general desire to tear down the international trading order.

Let’s not forget that in 2018, Republicans lost all six statewide races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Sure, Trump is a different animal from those GOP candidates. But still, Trump’s trade war with China is unpopular.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll from July 2018 found that only 40 percent of registered voters nationwide thought trading tariffs with China will help U.S. jobs, vs. 56 percent who thought it would hurt.

The trade war is also unpopular in the industrial Midwest: According to the Post polling team, among voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa, those numbers were 39 percent to 59 percent.

If Trump’s trade wars continue to harm the country, he’ll be vulnerable to this contrast. And I suspect this debate will be colored by the broader unpopularity of America-First Trumpism. It’s no accident that Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal and his disastrous immigration policies have also proved deeply unpopular.

The public is now seeing the reality of “America First" as a basis for complicated policy decisions in an increasingly interdependent world, and recoiling at it. This isn’t a debate Democrats need to fear.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Democrats should be shouting Trump’s trade failures from the rooftops

Greg Sargent: Trump is staking reelection on one of his biggest lies

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump didn’t start this trade war, China did

Jennifer Rubin: Trump can’t admit he enacted a new tax

The Post’s View: Trump’s biggest mistake in the trade war with China