It’s the early morning hours of Wednesday Nov. 4th, and the entire political world is trying to figure out just how Donald Trump became the first one-term President in more than a quarter-century.
If such a scenario should come to pass, Trump’s fate may well have been sealed on Jan. 29, the day Trump signed the USMCA, an updated trade agreement with Mexico and Canada also known as NAFTA 2.0. The deal fulfilled the president’s intense desire for an accomplishment he can tout to supporters with all his familiar fantastical flourishes.
“The USMCA is the largest, fairest, most balanced and modern trade agreement ever achieved,” he asserted. “There’s never been anything like it.”
Trump’s fervent invective against trade deals helped him crack the fabled blue wall and flip the Rust Belt of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That’s why it’s so surprising he left himself open to be outflanked on the issue in 2020.
Perhaps it was simply a gamble. After all, only one candidate in the Democratic primary could exploit it. Unfortunately for Trump, that candidate just won New Hampshire.
U.S. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as he would surely tell you, has been a proud opponent of controversial trade deals for decades. What’s more, his 30 years in Congress provides ample proof of his bona fides.
The original NAFTA? Voted against it. Permanent trade relations with China? Voted against it. CAFTA? Voted against that too. And that was just as a member of the House. When Sanders got to the Senate in 2006 he fought against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a series of Obama administration trade agreements.
Suffice to say, Sanders was also one of 10 senators, and the only Democratic presidential candidate, to vote ‘no’ on USMCA.
Sanders is also prepared to make it a central issue in a general election match-up. Back when it appeared that the Vermonter’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination was going to be former Vice President Joe Biden (so much can change so fast, can’t it?) he laid out his rationale.
“Joe Biden voted for the disastrous trade agreements, like NAFTA, and permanent normal trade relations with China, which cost us millions of jobs,” Sanders told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in January. “You think that’s gonna play well in Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania?”
According to exit polls, however, Sanders finished just 2 points behind among those who felt “trade with other countries takes away U.S. jobs.”
Furthermore, exit polls from the general election show that a majority of Pennsylvania voters felt that trade takes away jobs, and they favored Trump over Clinton by a 64 percent-32 percent.
Remember that the combined margin in these three states was just 77,744 votes (Pennsylvania: 44,292; Wisconsin: 22,748; Michigan:10,704). The major shifts came in places with a significant number of Obama-Trump voters like Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Erie.
One person aware of this dynamic is U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who was the only Republican Senator to vote against the USMCA.
Toomey, an expert at political survival, argued it was insufficient on a free-market basis in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Those objections didn’t stop any of his 52 other GOP colleagues. Toomey had to be aware that any trade agreement would be particularly fraught in the Keystone State and that the safe bet was to not give any 2022 rivals a potential opening.
In such a polarized world, trade is perhaps the most fluid political issue of the moment. A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed Trump within the margin of error, 47-49 percent approval, when it came to his handling of trade issues.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., another 2020 contender, fought stridently against TPP but was encouraged by labor to support USMCA. Meanwhile failed Democratic candidates who were recently spurned by the electorate, such as U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., all voted against it.
All this evidence suggests there’s a neglected opening this year for an anti-trade Democratic nominee. It’s an opportunity Bernie Sanders is uniquely suited for and one that could just take him all the way.
Nick Field, of Bucks County, is a Capital-Star Correspondent. His work appears frequently.