The Energy 202: What's a red-state Democrat to do about Trump's tariffs? Embrace them.

Tuesday , March 13, 2018 - 7:05 AM

Dino Grandoni

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Much of the U.S. business community is deriding President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. Members of Trump’s own party in Congress are fretting over the prospect of a potential trade war with Europe and other allies.

As for red-state Democrats? If they can’t exactly love the man, they can at least love his tariffs.

Over the past week, Democrats representing purple or red-leaning districts and states have embraced Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs,issued late last week, despite broad suspicion within both parties ranks that they are not good policy.

Economically, the tariffs may make little sense for the U.S. economy as a whole, many economists say. Jobs in economic sectors targeted with retaliatory measures, such as aerospace, may be threatened while consumer prices may rise and growth in gross domestic product may slow.

Nevertheless, the protectionist measure is a political winner in Rust Belt towns and cities - where the domestic steel industry once thrived - left behind by broad shifts in the U.S. economy as the nation opened itself up to trade and manufacturing jobs moved to China and elsewhere

“This welcome action is long overdue for shuttered steel plants across Ohio and steelworkers who live in fear that their jobs will be the next victims of Chinese cheating,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said last week.

Other Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, offered similar endorsements. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, which leads the nation in steel production, offered conditional plaudits. “I’m pleased that President Trump is taking action, and I plan to carefully review the details of his proclamations,” said Donnelly, who like Manchin is facing a tough reelection vote in November.

Both Brown an Manchin are up for reelection in 2018 in states Trump won during the campaign by 8 and 42 points, respectively. Donnelly will also face voters this year in Indiana, where the president won by 19 percentage points.

Democratic Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, who isn’t running this year, piled on with praise for the president: “I commend the president for announcing his intent to take action to protect our steelworkers from countries, like China, that cheat on trade.”

Nowhere, in fact, is the Democratic embrace on better display than in southwest Pennsylvania.

The candidates from both parties vying to represent the 18th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, which will hold a special election today that is being closely watched by Washington, support Trump’s tariffs wholeheartedly. Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee, endorsed the tariffs immediately, saying it is time to “take some action to level the playing field here.” Republican Rick Saccone endorsed the tariffs too, characterizing the decision as addressing a “national security issue.”

A new Monmouth University poll released today, however, suggests that the tariff announcement is having very little effect on voters. Just 3 percent of respondents said they were more likely to back Saccone because of the tariffs and only 1 percent said it made them more likely to support Lamb (that’s 96 percent who said they made no difference).

Despite campaigning like no other GOP nominee before him, Trump has governed in many ways like a conventional Republican. He promised to protect Medicare before flirting this year with reducing spending. He promised to rein in the excesses of Wall Street before ordering the rollback of financial sector regulations.

On the issue of tariffs, however, Trump has remained consistent.

Casey, Brown, Donnelly and Manchin represent onetime industrial powerhouse states where Democrats have lost significant ground to the GOP, even before Trump’s nomination in 2016. The Democratic Party must hold on to their seats to have a shot at taking back control of the Senate.

The bigger question is how the eventual 2020 Democratic nominee positions himself or herself on tariffs and more broadly on Trump’s protectionist stances.

Writ large, the Democratic Party treats Trump’s tariffs like it does most of Trump’s policy positions: with disdain. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, nearly three-fourths of Democrats oppose the steel and aluminum tariffs.


Sign up for e-mail news updates.