The USMCA will be insignificant to Trump in 2020
House Democrats reached a deal with President Trump earlier this week to pass a revised version of the North American Free Trade agreement. Centrist Democrats and House leadership under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cali.) were convinced they needed to "show that we can do something," as Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) put it. Meanwhile, the Democrats' progressive flank is appalled that the party handed Trump a win even as it tries to hammer the message that the president is a dire threat to American democracy.
But all of this raises the question: Will passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) actually help Trump's re-election chances? Of course, there is a somewhat parallel question about whether or not the Democrats muddled their message on impeachment by announcing an accord with the very president they're trying to boot from the White House. But in terms of securing Trump another four years, the USMCA's successful passage will likely be a giant nothingburger.
Critics of the Democrats' USMCA deal seem to imagine him barnstorming the rust belt states he flipped in 2016, bragging that he won manufacturing and autoworkers new protections from the depredations of North American trade. And they figure that must have a big effect. But most voters just aren't that plugged into the events of politics. They come to elections late, and their heuristic for judging the incumbent is whether life seems to be getting better for them in concrete ways.
"For decades now, political scientists have been building election models that attempt to predict who will win in November without making any reference to candidates or campaigns," Ezra Klein explained in a 2010 column that remains relevant today. "They can generally get within two percentage points of the final vote, and they don't need to know anything about the ads, the gaffes, or the ground games to do it. All they really need to know about is the economy." Specifically, how the economy is doing in the year preceding the election. If wages and growth are on upward trajectories over that time period, that's usually very good news for the incumbent.
So just what would the USMCA do for the economy in 2020? Not much, it turns out.
One of the two big economic projections on the deal, performed by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), estimated it would add 176,000 jobs to the economy over the next six years. For context, that's about as many jobs as we add in any single month of decent economic growth. It's a 0.12 percent increase in national employment over the baseline without the USMCA, and spread over six years. The small part of that tiny addition that will hit in 2020 will be completely imperceptible. Similarly, the ITC estimated that GDP and wages would grow by 0.35 percent and 0.27 percent over those six years, respectively. The other projection came from the International Monetary Fund, and it was even less optimistic.
Thanks to the electoral college, how the USMCA affects a few states' economies will matter most — particularly the crucial rust belt states that abandoned the Obama coalition in 2016 — as opposed to its effect on the national economy as a whole. But here again, the nothingburger interpretation holds.
The ITC study projects the USMCA will add 51,000 new jobs to manufacturing, mining, and farming over its first six years of operation. For context, those three industries employ something in the vicinity of 14 million people. That's an increase of less than one percent — and not even in 2020, but spread out over six years. Similarly, employment in the auto sector would increase by about three percent over the deal's first six years. The idea that such minute changes will lead to meaningful differences that workers in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin would see and feel in their lives and communities before November 2020 seems like a stretch.
When Trump was first elected to the White House, his weird combination of (supposed) economic populism and reactionary ethno-chauvinism seemed like it could present the Democrats with a nasty dilemma: Maybe they would do something genuinely productive and in sync with their own values — like pass a big infrastructure bill with Trump's signature, for example. But in doing so, they'd hand Trump a big political win, which would then help his efforts to do other things like crackdown on immigrants and strip minorities of access to the voting booth.
But the "win" for Trump in that scenario rested on the crucial assumption that a big infrastructure bill would deliver significant and meaningful improvements in American employment, wage growth, and community quality, and do all of that before the next election roles around. Every projection suggests the USMCA really won't do that, thus it doesn't present anything like that dilemma. The single biggest reason to think Trump will secure re-election is that the economy continues its steady upward climb, USMCA passage or not. But even that advantage is less than it appears: America's remarkably low unemployment rate has been built on a flood of new jobs that are low pay, menial, with few benefits or long-term security.
None of this should be taken as praise for the wisdom of Pelosi and the centrist Democrats. If the concrete effects of this trade agreement are unlikely to build up any extra goodwill for Trump, they're also unlikely to do so for the House Democrats who help pass it. If Democrats think waving the USMCA at town halls will secure their own fortunes in 2020, they are almost certainly fooling themselves.
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