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Howes: Impeachment inquiry could kill the auto agenda

daniel howes
Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Detroit’s automotive agenda in President Donald Trump’s Washington may just have gone poof.

Judging by the first few days of the impeachment inquiry, the deadly serious circus is likely to immobilize the White House — and fixate congressional Democrats on the case against Trump.

Which means automakers are likely to see no new trade deals approved by Congress — or much clarification surrounding the fight over auto emissions rules. Caught in the middle? Automakers mulling multi-billion-dollar bets on the future.

Democrats who are slow-walking Trump's economic, trade and environmental policies now have zero incentive to give the president a win on things that resonate with automakers and unions in the industrial Midwest.

Team Trump already is using the launch of the formal impeachment inquiry to argue Democrats will be hamstrung in their ability to do anything but pursue angles toward impeachment: “I don’t think they can do any deals,” the President said this week.

Expecting a bitterly divided Washington to coalesce around a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement is the triumph of hope over common sense. Yet even as impeachment fervor rises, Democrats say efforts remain on track to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Who are they kidding?

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is promising to honor concerns Democrats have about the NAFTA replacement. That just increases the likelihood nothing will get done – unless the President’s political predicament forces him to compromise so he can get a win — any win — with his base.

Detroit's automakers, and their foreign rivals in the United States, shouldn't hold their collective breath. Trump’s mounting problems will hobble his administration's push to deliver on 2016 campaign promises before the 2020 election. And some of his biggest ones affect the auto industry.

Trade deals in North America, with China and the European Union are suddenly on shaky ground. A titanic battle over emissions rules pitting Trump against California and a dozen coastal states could be paused, maintaining the status quo.

Only the most disciplined compartmentalizer could face such a challenge and still focus on policy. Not likely. So much depends on where the impeachment investigation leads.

What’s certain is that the auto industry Trump needs to repeat his 2016 win in the Midwest has taken a lot of presidential shots over the past two years. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, his trade battles and his badgering about investment decisions have not made many high-powered friends around here.

For now, smart money is betting impeachment ends in the Democratic-controlled House. But that assumption implicitly means all the case’s unknowns are known. They aren’t, leaving automakers and a lot of other industries wondering who comes next — and when.

The policy drift likely to accompany an impeachment drive risks making uncertainty just about the only certainty in the Trump era. It's exhausting.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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