But once again, Republican members of Congress aren’t planning to do anything to stop the president of their own party from acting in a manner antithetical to their economic principles.
Maybe that’s because their principles on trade have changed to match the president’s.
As I’ve argued, no issue underscores how entirely Trump has remade the Republican Party in his image as trade. Republicans used to be the party of free trade; now Congress is letting Trump reverse that. The president is closing trade partnerships he deems unfair by putting billions of dollars of tariffs on products from some of the United States’ biggest trading partners, namely Mexico and China.
Republican lawmakers may not like it, but they seem to think there’s little they can do about it, both politically and practically.
Practically, Congress has given up much of its leverage over the years (before Trump) to weigh in on trade diplomacy. Grassley and other lawmakers are trying to change that with a bipartisan piece of legislation that would allow Congress to weigh in, for national security reasons, on any tariffs the president issues.
But that legislation largely affects tariffs on trade with China, not these new Mexican ones, which caught Congress off guard. (A GOP Senate aide close to trade negotiations said senators need to see how White House negotiations with Mexico play out before deciding on a course of action.)
And it’s not clear whether Grassley’s legislation would even get a vote in a Senate controlled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who appears to have acquiesced to Trump’s tariffs rather than face a primary challenger for his reelection for not appearing to be pro-Trump enough.
That brings us to the political reasons Republicans in Congress probably won’t stand in Trump’s way. Trump has won the Republican intraparty trade war. Four years ago, when he was running for president, he was the only one to talk about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. Now, it’s being negotiated. (Well, or was. Republicans in Congress are very worried this tariff battle could “seriously jeopardize passage” of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Grassley said in a statement.)
During the 2016 campaign, Republican voters’ opinions of free trade seemed inversely proportional to then-candidate Trump’s rise. Toward the end of the campaign, Republican voters’ opinions of free trade were at their lowest since 2009.
Polling today finds that Americans are skeptical of how tariffs will blunt the economy’s recovery, but there’s no groundswell of support for stopping them, either.
A May Monmouth University poll found that free trade agreements are more popular than tariffs with Americans (51 percent support free trade, compared with 32 percent who say tariffs are generally good for the economy).
Forty-five percent of Republicans tell a May CBS News poll that they think the tariffs on China will make the economy better — hardly a consensus.
Despite the trepidation on tariffs, in that CBS News poll, 5 percent of Americans said trade was the most important issue for Congress to address.
It’s a given that the hard-core Republican voters, who will decide primaries next year, support Trump fiercely. Even farmers hurting from tariffs in pro-Trump states such as Iowa and Montana have been willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt that his plan will ultimately bring about positive economic change, in the form of renegotiated trade practices with China. (Though GOP senators warn that those farmers’ patience is wearing thin.)
And Trump has tied these Mexican tariffs to something extraordinarily popular within the Republican base: immigration, specifically stopping people from coming into the country illegally via the Mexican border.
If you’re a Republican senator up for reelection in 2020, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) or McConnell, and had a viable challenger next year — safely embedding yourself under Trump’s umbrella — even if you contradict something you said a couple years ago — is the key to survival.
Among GOP members of Congress, there is no talk of weighing in on a resolution of disapproval, as they did for Trump’s national emergency declaration at the border. It would be symbolic but would register for the history books that the Republican Party under Trump is not entirely a pro-tariff party.
That could be because the Republican Party is fast becoming a pro-tariff party, whether or not Republican lawmakers like it.