Connecting The Dots On Trump's Tariffs

[ Posted Monday, March 5th, 2018 – 18:24 PST ]

There are two dots that are pretty easy (in retrospect) to connect, when looking for a reason for the hasty timing of President Trump's recent announcement of new steel and aluminum tariffs. In fact, the connection is so jaw-droppingly obvious (again -- after it is pointed out) that it's a mystery why more people inside the Beltway are seemingly not yet aware of it.

Last week, Trump announced a new 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum. Neither has been finalized yet, but the news certainly did make a splash in the financial world. But the dot that needs connecting to Trump's announcement is a political one, not an economic one. Because next Tuesday, voters in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district will be heading to the polls in a closely-watched special House election. The district's old boundaries (which will be valid for next week's election, but which will then change for the midterm elections in November) contain all the suburbs of Pittsburgh to the south of the city, as well as some rural areas outside the metropolitan area. Pittsburgh, of course, is the city that named their professional football team "The Steelers."

This connection, when pointed out, is pretty blindingly obvious. Now, I cannot take personal credit for connecting these two dots, but I also am not able to give proper credit for the origin of the idea. I watch so many political shows over the weekends that I plain forgot where I heard this new idea -- perhaps on PBS's Washington Week, but it could easily have been another show. I didn't specifically note it at the time because I felt certain that the meme would get picked up by pundits across the political spectrum.

But, for some unfathomable reason, it didn't. In fact, throughout the whole weekend, I didn't hear any other commentator link the two at all, even though the subject of the tariffs was discussed on just about every political show. Which is why I'm writing about it today, since it obviously needs more exposure.

The Pennsylvania district in question is another one that Democrats really should not have a prayer of winning. So far, we've had a string of close special elections in House districts that should really be deep red, where Democrats did a lot better than they historically should have. Unfortunately for the Democrats, they never quite made it across the finish line. None of the districts flipped, even the one in Georgia where an absolute boatload of money was spent on Jon Ossoff's campaign. So PA-18 may have the same ultimate result, with the Democrat getting far closer than he really should have, but then losing in the end.

Hope springs eternal for the Democrats, though. They know that even coming close in deep red districts terrifies what might be called the "Republican election-industrial complex" -- the army of GOP consultants behind the scenes who actually closely track such things as House district margins. If Democrats even get close in these districts, the wonks wonder, then what will happen in the midterms in districts (and there are a lot of them) where the margins are a whole lot closer? If the big blue wave does materialize in November, these are the warning signs that will be pointed to later, to put it slightly differently.

President Trump solidly won the PA-18 district in 2016, by a 20-point margin. But the special election is being called due to the resignation of a supposedly pro-life Republican who not only cheated on his wife but also reportedly pressured his mistress to get an abortion when she got pregnant. That's not exactly a paragon of Republican family values, to put it mildly.

But even with a sex scandal hanging over the race, the Republican candidate should really be skating to victory. He's not, if the polling is to be believed. In fact, the most recent poll just released actually had the Democrat up by three points, 48-45. So this is a very tight race, which is why so much outside money has poured in to the campaign. Earlier in the race, Republicans were outspending Democratic groups by 17-to-1, but that has somewhat lessened as Democrats have been drawn to the possibility of winning the race. Even so, Republicans are spending truckloads of money on a race which they really shouldn't have to spend a dime to win. And it's now looking like the late-breaking trend is towards the Democrat, which could be bad news for Republicans next Tuesday.

One interesting (and possibly related) note is that the focus of the Republican advertising seems to recently have shifted. They were running ads touting the Trump tax cuts, but that strategy seems to have flopped, as they're shifting ad buys to more of a law-and-order (and anti-immigrant) campaign in the closing days. This could have larger implications for November, since "the Trump tax cuts are wonderful" is pretty much the only plank the Republicans have for their midterm platform. If this message is not resonating, then Republicans may be in bigger trouble than they now think.

Whether the ad shift is a sign of desperation on the GOP's part is debatable, but the new steel tariffs announced by Trump should definitely be seen as a desperate move. After all, there simply aren't enough tariffs that are even possible for the numerous House districts the GOP will be defending this fall. So while this might work in Pittsburgh, it may not play in Peoria.

Of course, the smartest thing Trump could do at this point would be to stall the official announcement of the tariffs until after next Tuesday night. Last week the White House indicated that the tariffs would be signed into being during the upcoming week, but it wouldn't be that hard to punt that until the middle of next week, really. That way he could gain the political benefits before having to actually commit to the new policy in any detail.

If Democrats don't pull off an upset victory next week in PA-18, the Trump tariff announcement may well turn out to have been the reason. It has the possibility of upending the dynamics of the race -- and in such a fashion (so close to the actual election) that any detailed analysis of the effect will not take place until after the votes are counted. Democrats, in this case, will console themselves with the moral victory (or consolation prize) of shrinking the margins and forcing a close race in a very red district.

But if the Democrat actually wins, it will be an absolute bombshell in the political world. After coming close but failing four times, Democrats will finally have the special House election victory to crow about that they've been chasing ever since Trump won. Republicans will move from being merely frightened about the swelling big blue wave to being absolutely quaking in their boots over their prospects for victory in November. That would generate a monumental surge in enthusiasm for Democrats everywhere -- which is (coincidentally) exactly what they need to make the big blue wave a reality.

Obviously, the political stakes are high in this race, which is why both sides are paying such attention to it and spending so much money on it. So far the race has garnered little attention beyond the world of political wonkery, but that all may change next Tuesday. Which is why it makes all the sense in the world why Donald Trump would announce a hefty tariff on steel less than two weeks before voters go to the polls in steel country. The only mystifying thing is why more people inside the Beltway haven't connected these two dots yet.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


20 Comments on “Connecting The Dots On Trump's Tariffs”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    "The only mystifying thing is why more people inside the Beltway haven't connected these two dots yet."

    Well, with so much else going on...

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    donald may not read much, but there's no denying he's got great sales sense. the tariff will obviously never materialize in the concrete, and by this time next month it will be little more than a tiny object in the rearview of the world economy. however, i wonder how many votes the proposal will flip - and if so, how much credit he'll get for it.


  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I have some real doubts about the impact of Trump's hasty tariff announcements on the special election. Steel and aluminum smelting aren't major employers in's more of a coal,oil natural gas region according to my industrial atlas - and latter aren't huge either. I have to wonder if Trump knows this, or if his fevered brain just went into free association "Pennsylvania! Steel! 25%! Aluminum is also a metal! 10%! Feck! Arse! KFC! Girls!"

    A mighty small upside against upsetting the World Economic Cart...but Trump is troubled and susceptible to any forlorn hope he can wrap is arms around.

    Don't make any major decisions immediately after a big break up!

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    there you go again confusing reality with campaign rhetoric. most voters in PA-18 probably know just as little about the steel industry as donald does, and the reality of it will have zero bearing on whether or not his steel pitch works on them. what we're measuring is not the tariff proposal's basis in fact but whether or not it harnesses the myth.


  5. [5] 
    neilm wrote:

    OK, so I don't pay much attention to Trumps daily calendar, but has he been to PA? Is he actively campaigning for the Republican candidate? I mean he was pretty clear with Roy Moore.

    Absent the usual massive sticky fingerprints on the PA election do we know if Trump even knows there is an election?

  6. [6] 
    Kick wrote:

    OK, so I don't pay much attention to Trumps daily calendar, but has he been to PA? Is he actively campaigning for the Republican candidate? I mean he was pretty clear with Roy Moore.

    He has. Remember that time in January where the White House flat out insisted that Trump was not going to PA to campaign for Saccone, while Trump tweeted otherwise?

    Donald J. Trump

    Will be going to Pennsylvania today in order to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13). Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!

    4:53 AM - 18 Jan 2018

    The White House stated around that time that Trump would only be returning to Pennsylvania to campaign for Saccone if the race was close. With polls tightening up and some showing a lead for Connor Lamb, Trump is scheduled to go back for a rally at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 10 at Pittsburgh International Airport.

  7. [7] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Writing about something that no one else is writing about because it obviously needs more exposure. Interesting concept.

    I wonder if there are any other issues or ideas to which that concept could also apply.

    And the concept that you don't have to win an election to have an impact and build on that for future elections is also interesting.

    What is interesting is that concept seems to only apply to Big Money Democrats when it can used to promote the Big Money Democrats and not to challenging them with small contribution candidates.

    Why is that?

    The concepts are fine, but not the consistency.

  8. [8] 
    TheStig wrote:

    An entertainingly ambiguous Trump comment has been making the rounds on CNN.

    "I don't think we're going to have a trade war."

    Or possibly .

    "I don't think." "We're going to have a trade war."

    That pretty much covers the possible outcomes.

  9. [9] 
    neilm wrote:

    Thanks Kick - PA should be interesting.

    I was also reading a Republican blogger talking about the Texas primaries - the fear of a blue wave there is interesting - the voting turnout is Texas is so low that if the Democrats ever discover that all they need to do is turn out to win the state could turn purple at least a decade before it is currently expected to. The Republicans are worried that 2018 is the year that the Democrats realize they are much closer than it seems.

  10. [10] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Back in the middle 1800's, we stole CA and TX from Mexico. We accomplished that by flooding the place with illeg - er, I mean, 'undocumented' immigrants.

    These days, Mexico is in the process of stealing them back, using the same system.

    Turn-about is definitely fair play!

  11. [11] 
    neilm wrote:

    These days, Mexico is in the process of stealing them back, using the same system.

    So let me get this straight. Immigrants want to come to California so they can make it part of Mexico.

    Makes sense to me ;)

  12. [12] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    Somehow I think your interpretation of my only partly joking comment might be just a shade too literal. Partly my fault, I should have said 'Mexicans', not "Mexico". What Mexicans are doing is known as "voting with their feet". I seriously doubt that any of them want to make either place part of Mexico.

    They're indeed taking over both places, but if they liked Mexico, they wouldn't be leaving, right?

  13. [13] 
    neilm wrote:

    I live in California, and never feel like "Mexicans" are trying to take over. Maybe where you live there are hordes of immigrants changing the culture, but for me, as a lover of Mexican food, I can't get enough.

    Just like I love the great Italian restaurants (remember when we used to lynch Italians?), Irish bars (remember when there were "No Irish" signs?), Chinese restaurants (remember when we blocked all immigration from China?) and of course Sushi bars (remember when we interned Japanese-Americans?).

    This story is as old as America.

  14. [14] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    When trump claimed to want to drain the swamp, what he didn't tell us is that he was going to stack whats left of the middle class in the swamp.

    If you stack enough bodies in the swamp it will eventually displace enough water and muck to make it appear as drained.

    Nothing bad can come from this little gem...

  15. [15] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    or how about this one....

    I am sure the GOP will be setting up investigations....Just like they would for a dem...

  16. [16] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Two notes to append to this article, before I answer some comments

    (1) After I wrote this, on the evening news, I heard that the White House will be officially rolling the tariffs out "in the next two weeks or so," meaning they're probably already planning on waiting until after next Tuesday.

    (2) However, I've also read that Trump really wants to sign the tariffs at an event that was described as "in steel country" in PA-18.

    Make of that what you will...

    OK, let's see...

    TheStig [3] -

    Nice "Father Ted" reference, there...


    neilm [5] -

    Trump knows all about this election. He held an event (manufacturing, forget what type) a few weeks ago here (although I read differing reports as to whether it was technically within PA-18 or not, but it was at least within a few miles of the border). Pence has been at least twice, as have other top Republicans. Trump is planning on going back (see above, #2) I think this Saturday, right before Election Day.

    Kick [6] -

    OK, thanks for the details. Your answer was much better than mine!



  17. [17] 
    Paula wrote:

    Blotus' Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn resigns over the tariffs.

  18. [18] 
    Kick wrote:


    Thanks Kick - PA should be interesting.

    Lamb has the momentum right now; I guess we'll see if it's enough.

    I was also reading a Republican blogger talking about the Texas primaries - the fear of a blue wave there is interesting - the voting turnout is Texas is so low that if the Democrats ever discover that all they need to do is turn out to win the state could turn purple at least a decade before it is currently expected to. The Republicans are worried that 2018 is the year that the Democrats realize they are much closer than it seems.

    I know, right!? Democrats may finally be getting the message because the turnout for Dems is up 105% from 2014, while Republican turnout is up around 15%. Now this is going to get interesting here. :)

  19. [19] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    neilm (13)-
    Republicans are just showing that they can learn from their mistakes and they are not going to make the same mistake with Mexicans that we made with integrating the Italians, Irish, Chinese and Japanese. This time we will stay the course back to the good old days. :D

  20. [20] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    neilm Your [13]

    I worry, could it be that you're shortchanging all those wonderful Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants of which you claim to be so enamoured, leading to a disproportionate amount of your ethnically-oriented efforts being devoted exclusively to those wonderful Irish bars??

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