Trump’s Tariff Politics

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 11

This week:

  • Trumpism’s concentrated benefits and diffuse costs
  • Poll shows McCaskill trailing badly
  • In Pennsylvania, Republicans at risk of their worst loss since 2016


Tariffs: President Trump’s tariffs have Republicans panicking. The protectionist measures fly in the face of economic orthodoxy and conservative orthodoxy as well. But Trump, of course, didn’t come to office by courting the orthodox Republican. It’s a fact of life with which Republicans must learn to live as long as the Republican Party is under Trump’s sway.

Economists talk about tariffs having concentrated benefits for a few people, and diffuse costs that are spread out among so many people that they fail to recognize they are being harmed. For example, steel tariffs help steel workers, but at the expense of a much larger number of manufacturing workers who make steel products. But the latter are each hurt less than the former are helped.

With respect to Trump, this same concept can be extended to politics. His tariff, like so much of his political catechism, is targeted not at the general public, but at a small number of nationalist-minded admirers who like to hear that the free trade orthodoxy is being defied and protectionism embraced in the White House.

Many free-traders voted for Trump for lack of an acceptable alternative; for them, it wasn’t a decisive issue in the general election. But it was an issue for others. At the margin, Trump was put over the top by the working class voter who supports protectionism and accepts its logic, precisely because that voter normally votes Democratic.

This is the lens through which everyone needs to understand Trump’s tariff announcement. He will defy the experts and plunge ahead with the policy because he isn’t going for widespread approval at all — rather, he is trying to win over Democratic hearts and minds at the margins.

Texas primary: There were no big surprises in the first primary of 2018 last Tuesday night, except that Democrats managed to bring out so many of their voters in the primary — more than 1 million voters, which they hadn’t done since they fielded their “Dream Team” ticket of 2002 (which turned out to be a flop, by the way). Republicans also increased their turnout, but not by nearly as much.

Most pundits were downplaying their achievement — after all, Democratic turnout this time around didn’t even measure up numerically to what they were able to accomplish in the 1990s, when Texas was a much smaller state.

But the fact that they were able to get so many voters to the polls is a sign that they’ve been hard at work, and Republicans cannot afford to be complacent. For all the states in the Rust Belt where Trump outperformed other Republicans, Texas is a state where the opposite happened — where Trump’s brand of politics fared poorly. His candidacy underperformed there compared to earlier Republican efforts. He beat Hillary Clinton by only nine points, compared to Romney’s 16-point win in 2012.

If Democrats have found a way to get more of their voters out, Republicans ignore it at their own peril.

Senate 2018

Missouri: One of these new polls by the news organization Axios has Sen. Claire McCaskill trailing Attorney General Josh Hawley, 52 to 44 percent.

Even at this early stage, a poll result like that is terrible for an incumbent. Even worse for McCaskill, it’s also potentially self-fulfilling, as donors and others look for indicators by which to set their priorities for 2018.

The poll sheds some light, for example, on Planned Parenthood’s decision not to include McCaskill in their $20 million planned disbursement on behalf of Democratic senators. For an incumbent to be in the low ‘40 is terrible, and to have an opponent above 50 percent is also terrible. But both at the same time? That’s a miserable situation, and once again it explains why McCaskill has long been viewed as the most vulnerable Senate incumbent in 2018, in spite of the likelihood that this will be a strong Democratic year.

Montana: Although it doesn’t test him against any specific Republican, the Axios poll also shows Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester to be surprisingly weak, losing 55 to 42 percent against a generic Republican opponent.

The filing deadline is today — March 12 — and Republicans clearly dropped the ball in recruitment here. But that doesn’t quite mean Tester is out of the woods just yet. Those numbers are bad enough that a relatively obscure candidate might be able to make him sweat. After all, Tester himself came from obscurity in 2006 to defeat the late Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.

West Virginia: One of the bigger surprises in this new set of Axios polls was how poorly Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin fares, albeit against a “generic Republican” rather than one of his actual potential opponents. To date, Manchin had been the one West Virginia Democrat capable of avoiding his party’s growing unpopularity. His ninth life may be spent, though. And if Republicans can take him down, it’s hard to think they won’t keep the Senate, no matter what losses they might suffer.

At the moment, Manchin has three major Republicans vying to face him. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R, a former Democrat, is the narrow favorite in a close race against Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and former Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship.

Blankenship is the riskiest person for Republicans to nominate — he was released from prison in May 2017 after serving a one-year sentence in connection with the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster of 2010. At one point he was the most hated man in West Virginia. But according to what little polling there is so far, he is a very close second to Jenkins, with Morrisey trailing in third place by about 10 points.

House 2018

Pennsylvania-18-Special: President Trump’s last-minute visit to this southwest Pennsylvania district was desperately needed. Despite the Democratic Party’s failure to kick in anything, a dud Republican candidate could prove costly on Tuesday. State Rep. Rick Saccone, R, narrowly trails Democrat Conor Lamb in late polls, offering the Republican turnout machine another chance to  prove itself.

The loss of this seat would be an enormous blow, considering that it went for Trump by about 20 points in 2016. It would also represent the worst loss for Republicans so far in the special election season — worse than the Alabama Senate seat, which was only lost because of Roy Moore’s peculiar problems as a candidate.

Election Day is Tuesday.