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Opinion As Trump sinks, Democrats may face a tough choice

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during a news conference on Sept. 26. (Alex Edelman/Bloomberg)

Here’s a dynamic to keep an eye on: The more President Trump sinks into his deepening impeachment morass, the harder it will be for congressional Democrats to accept any deal on a revamped North American Free Trade Agreement, even though a good deal is something many Democrats badly want.

Right now, House Democrats are in negotiations with the Trump administration over the improvements they are seeking to the NAFTA rewrite that Trump agreed upon with Canada and Mexico last year. Democrats want to toughen up the deal’s enforcement of labor and wage standards and do away with patent protections for Big Pharma, among other things.

This week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stirred up Democrats by flatly declaring that they should slow down and reject any deal that doesn’t dramatically improve Trump’s NAFTA renegotiation. By contrast, Trump badly wants Democrats to agree to a deal, because it would give him a big talking point on one of his signature issues — trade — heading into his reelection campaign.

But Trump’s deepening impeachment travails add an important element to this ferment. The more Trump openly flaunts his corruption and contempt for congressional oversight, brashly soliciting foreign interference in our election and refusing all cooperation with lawful subpoenas on the grounds that the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate, the more Democrats will be inclined to reject any deal.

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This is, of course, a major problem for Trump. But it also creates a genuine political and moral dilemma for Democrats.

On the one hand, Trump’s increasingly dangerous lawlessness should make Democrats reluctant to give Trump any victories that could help rescue his presidency. Many Democrats will also reasonably see any deal as, in a sense, dangerous to our democracy and political system, because it could convince voters that things are somewhat normal, distracting from the deep civic emergency that’s unfolding.

“America is enmeshed in a full fledged Constitutional crisis,” Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project told me, warning of the dangers of “legislating with Trump as if all were normal.”

Thus it is that you often see Twitter memes mocking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — or raging at her — for pursuing this renegotiation, the point being that Pelosi is helping Trump normalize himself at exactly the moment when he’s treating her House of Representatives like a piece of soiled toilet paper he’s flushing down his golden toilet.

But in truth, this isn’t just about Pelosi. A lot of House Democrats, including many progressive ones, would like to be able to support a much-improved version of Trump’s NAFTA renegotiation right now and would like to see one implemented.

As The Post reports, Democrats from very tough swing and pro-Trump districts want to be able to say they were able to get something done with Trump, despite furious divisions in Washington.

But some more progressive House Democrats, and House Democrats from manufacturing and farming states and districts, want to see a deal as well, provided it’s a good one. Their main goal is to see meaningful higher wage and labor standards in Mexico, and tough enforcement of them, to lessen the lure for U.S. companies to move jobs there. This is what Trumka and many progressive Democrats are insisting on, maintaining that if this isn’t genuinely achieved, Democrats must say no.

But if somehow a good deal were reached that did meet the hopes of labor and progressive Democrats, they would very likely want it to go into effect, because it could genuinely lift the fortunes of working people.

This creates a dilemma. Many of them are surely attuned to the profound problems that would attend giving Trump a deal. Yet for other moral and substantive reasons, they might want one, if it’s good enough.

“This is genuinely tough for many progressives,” Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, told me. “If, and it’s still a big if, the administration agrees to improvements necessary for a deal that would actually make people’s lives better, it’s immoral not to fight for that.”

Meanwhile, what happens if Trump’s travails get worse — or even a lot worse?

Right now, as Politico’s Ben White reports, the manufacturing economy is struggling in the very swing states in the Rust Belt that Trump badly needs to remain competitive in for reelection. That’s partly because of Trump’s trade war with China, which seems to be dragging on with no end in sight.

Those things, combined with Trump’s rapidly worsening legal struggles, rising support for impeachment and mounting chaotic lawlessness, will likely make it less appetizing for progressives to give him a NAFTA deal. Of course, it might also strengthen Democrats’ hand to get a good one, because Trump will need a victory more than ever.

It may be that this resolves itself, with Trump failing to agree to anything close to what progressives want. But if somehow a genuinely good deal comes within reach, that will create a real dilemma for many of them.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: If they won’t pass his trade deal, Trump should make Democrats own NAFTA

The Post’s View: Democrats should give Trump a win on his trade deal with Mexico and Canada

Rob Portman: USMCA is a needed upgrade from NAFTA. Let’s get it passed.

Mike Pence: Congress must pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement

Letter to the Editor: The USMCA is bad for workers