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Don’t Do What Cillizza Would Do


Erik has been beating this drum on Twitter today, but I’ve been amazed at how many otherwise smart people think House Dems taking advantage of Trump’s desperation to get a trade deal that apparently won huge concessions for organized labor is a bad thing because optics or something. As Matt Ford observes, this makes no sense:

It’s true that some past presidents might have leveraged a political victory like the USMCA into an approval-ratings boost. But a defining trait of Trump’s presidency is that Americans have already made up their minds about him. FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker, for example, shows that his approval rating has fluctuated between 37 and 45 percent for almost three years—an extraordinarily narrow range by presidential standards. His disapproval numbers haven’t dipped below 50 percent on the tracker since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. Some moments, like Trump’s response to Charlottesville and the government shutdown, had a far more tangible impact than others. But even they didn’t last long.

Trump’s presidential tenure is littered with events that seem game-changing at the time but quickly fade from the public’s radar. I don’t mean to downplay the actual significance of events like the government shutdown in January, Trump’s racist attacks on non-white members of Congress over the summer, or even the Ukraine scandal that emerged in September. Moments that would have defined a presidency in other eras are simply ephemeral in this one, soon to be overtaken in the news cycle by the next outrageous tweet, draconian policy change, or act of corrupt self-enrichment. There’s no reason to believe the USMCA deal will be any different.

It’s also doubtful that the USMCA deal, as a matter of economic policy, will help Trump win re-election next year on its own. The deal itself keeps most of the existing NAFTA framework intact, and the changes made to it are expected to have a modest impact on the U.S. economy. The International Trade Commission, a federal trade agency, estimated last week that the new agreement would raise the country’s GDP by just 0.35 percent and add only 176,000 jobs. Other factors, like the outcome of Trump’s trade war with China and whether or not the U.S. enters a recession next year, will have a greater effect on the nation’s economic outlook by next November.

One of the benefits of victory is that you get to brag about winning. So why give Trump something to brag about on the campaign trail, his critics might ask? In all likelihood, he would have celebrated a victory no matter what had transpired today. Trump spent most of the year claiming that his border wall was under construction when it wasn’t. He called the Russia investigation “an attempted overthrow of the government” right after the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that the inquiry was legitimate and unbiased. He lies whenever it benefits him, and the Republican Party is embracing the strategy as well. Worrying that this president might attack his opponents or boast about his accomplishments is an unsound foundation for political strategy.

Politically, the passage of USMCA will almost certainly have the same material impact most of the other political events that have happened since Trump was elected have had — i.e. none. Trump’s approval ratings are incredibly stable and a trade deal coverage of which will be quickly drowned our by impeachment is not going to change that. If the deal is good for labor on the merits, and labor groups themselves at least think it is, then passing it is the right thing. And I really don’t understand how so many people who understand how inane the Halperin/Cillizza school of punditry is will turn around and assess everything House Dems do through a lens of completely baseless speculation about MESSAGING.

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