House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in Washington on May 9. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
Opinion writer

It’s been widely observed that many Democrats appear bizarrely unwilling to take on President Trump when it comes to his signature issue of trade. Whether this is because Democrats are still traumatized by Trump’s smashing of the so-called blue wall states, persuading them that he possesses a mystical hold over that region, or whether they just prefer to talk about health care, this has to change.

That’s because the president’s record may leave him more vulnerable than he looks on the issue, which is crucial to his reelection hopes. And it’s a topic that Democrats should talk more about to refine their own substantive ideas about it.

In that context, this new report from the New York Times is important, as it suggests that some kind of battle over trade between Democrats and Trump is inevitable:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is resisting pressure from the Trump administration to quickly approve an updated North American trade deal and is telling lawmakers and union officials that a planned study of the agreement could drag on well into the fall, people familiar with the situation said.

Trump recently erupted in fury at Pelosi over her refusal to rubber-stamp his renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Now, the two sides will be heading into a battle over its future:

Ms. Pelosi has said privately that she is convinced the agreement can be approved — “I can get to yes” she told a supportive lawmaker last week — even if that would hand Mr. Trump with a much-needed domestic policy achievement ahead of his re-election campaign. But the president’s slight, in that it was a factor at all, only reinforced Ms. Pelosi’s resolve to extract significant revisions to the accord as a precondition of holding a floor vote, and those changes could require a renegotiation of the updated North American Free Trade Agreement, which the three countries agreed to last year.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) is under pressure from progressive Democrats and labor groups to draw a hard line on the deal, to secure changes strengthening its labor protections. Meanwhile, progressive economist Dean Baker notes that the deal’s protections for Big Pharma will not translate into U.S. jobs. And trade expert Todd Tucker argues it still gives corporations too much power in international trade disputes, while not giving labor and environmental groups such power.

The president believes he has the upper hand on this issue. He has threatened to terminate NAFTA entirely to force the Democrats’ hand. And the Times reports that some Trump advisers have urged him to walk away, arguing that Democrats will take the blame for failure.

But why assume Trump will automatically have the upper hand?

Trump badly needs a renegotiated NAFTA to succeed for his reelection purposes. Though Democrats would love a revamped NAFTA, they are under pressure from their constituencies to produce a more progressive version. In purely political terms, they likely need a revamped NAFTA to succeed less than Trump does.

Meanwhile, Trump has been seriously weakened on this issue. He campaigned on general promises to tear up trade deals and to grab China in his manly hands and shake it until it capitulates. But such promises have collided with the complexities of domestic politics, international diplomacy and the global economy. If Democrats hold their ground, they could force another NAFTA renegotiation with Canada and Mexico, which Trump badly wants to avoid.

What’s more, Trump’s trade war with China has failed to produce the results he wants — meaning he may have to choose between no deal and a bad deal — while also harming his own constituencies, because of complicated economic realities he never accounted for. He’ll likely need a victory on the NAFTA rewrite even more — which should boost the Democrats’ leverage.

The collision between Trump’s brash promises with the complexities of reality have rendered Trump’s trade policies unpopular. This is the case even in the industrial Midwest, where Quinnipiac poll numbers provided to me found the president’s approval rating on trade to be underwater.

Yes, Democrats have their own severe divisions on the issue. As Vox’s Tara Golshan and Dylan Scott explain, 2020 Democratic candidates such as former vice president Joe Biden are more associated with 1990s-era Clintonian globalization and NAFTA, while progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have staked out records against NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which was championed by one President Barack Obama).

Trade, then, is a proxy among the Democratic candidates for a more general debate between candidates from the more corporate-friendly wing of the party versus progressives who see a much more robust governmental role in taking on corporate power.

Adding to those intra-party complexities, CNN’s Ron Brownstein has detailed that many Democratic lawmakers and large swaths of their voters now come from areas of the country that are increasingly tied into the global economy, leaving them less preoccupied with trade than Democrats fighting for survival in the Rust Belt (or Warren and Sanders) are.

But in the end, I’d argue, these divisions don’t have to prove debilitating. One approach is to reframe the trade debate, so it doesn’t pit “free trade” against “protectionism,” a framing that both exacerbates Democratic divisions and potentially plays into Trump’s hands through an oversimplification that allows him to pose as a champion for workers.

Instead, Democrats can increasingly make the case that the choice is inevitably between different sets of trade rules, and that the primary question is whose interests each set of rules favors. They can also argue that Trump’s reckless, impulsive “America First” chest-thumping has been a disaster — as is happening against China, and with Trump’s alienation of other allies — and that the Democratic approach will reorient toward sober, reality-based international cooperation.

That’s a better frame for Democrats, and whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she will likely find an agenda along those lines that unites the party.

All of this is easier said than done, and will be heavily litigated in the Democratic primaries. But that’s a good thing; if the debate is a good one, it could leave Democrats in a stronger position against Trump on an issue that’s central to his reelection hopes.

Read more:

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

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

Catherine Rampell: Trump’s two worst economic ideas collide

Jared Bernstein: What if China isn’t the trade scoundrel we say it is?