Congressional Democrats
Credit: Lorie Shaull/FLICKR

On the front page of the New York Times website this morning were two related stories: “U.S. and China Call Truce in Trade War” and “Trump Says He Plans to Withdraw From NAFTA.” The former reports that President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping negotiated a temporary pause to trade war hostilities during a dinner at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. America, under the agreement, would not raise tariffs on “$200 billion worth of Chinese goods to 25 percent, from 10 percent, on Jan. 1. The Chinese agreed to an unspecified increase in their purchases of American industrial, energy and agricultural products, which Beijing hit with retaliatory tariffs after Mr. Trump targeted everything from steel to consumer electronics.”

The latter story reports Trump plans to withdraw from the original NAFTA agreement, which would give Congress six months to approve the “new” NAFTA agreement–elegantly rebranded the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement–that the three countries’ leaders ceremonially signed in Argentina. The USMCA, as has been widely reported, is almost exactly the same as NAFTA. Some notable exceptions involve automobile manufacturing, access to dairy markets in Canada and the U.S., and modernized intellectual property protections for internet and tech-based innovations.

How the temporary tariff ceasefire and the USMCA came about share similar story arcs: Trump digs hole; Trump refills hole (mostly); Trump declares beautiful victory for filling very big hole that nobody knew would be so hard to fill.

Going forward, Trump will no doubt dance on NAFTA’s grave. He’ll claim he accomplished a major campaign promise of protecting the American worker from the worst deal ever while portraying the scarcely-different agreement as one that contains huge concessions from Canada and Mexico. This will be annoying.

But it seems to me that the dumbest thing House Democrats could do is the thing they appear to be thinking about doing: begin their term in the majority by staging some melodramatic opposition to the USMCA on the grounds that it doesn’t do enough for American workers. It would be smarter to quickly approve it, insist on calling it “an updated NAFTA,” and rely on that most reliable of things: Trump’s ability to harm himself in spectacularly public ways and bury this “victory” beneath the headlines. In any case, it will be up to the Democrats’ 2020 candidate, not House members, to lay out what a truly worker-friendly trade agreement would look like.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at