Americans love it when politicians in Washington strike bipartisan deals that make everyone happy. At least, in theory. If that were true in practice, there would be many more bipartisan deals. Political realities ensure that compromise is almost always a fraught prospect. The temptation to eschew concession and consolation in order to court the uncompromising maximalists who hold sway over both party’s base voters is often too great to resist. The illusory consensus around a White House-backed proposal to pursue modest immigration reform is illustrative of this sorry state of affairs. The plan proposed by the Trump White House last week would make everyone happy. It’s a perfect middle ground. That’s precisely why it’s doomed.
Donald Trump is in a bind when it comes to the children of illegal immigrants, who were taken to the United States as minors and given clemency and work permits as a result of Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Trump’s Attorney General declared it unconstitutional in late 2017, established a date at which point the executive action would sunset, and kicked the can over to Congress. Immediately, the president demanded that Congress make DACA permanent through legislation. Though he signaled his desire to see DACA folded into a broader deal on border security, one White House source told the New York Times that Trump “veered toward Democrats on DACA after receiving tough coverage for backtracking on pledge to preserve it.”
Republicans on the Hill, too, are in the mood to ink a permanent fix to the DACA dilemma, but Trump needs something—anything—to show the immigration hawks that make up his voting base that he hadn’t caved on what they regard as amnesty for illegal immigrants. Thus, the president insisted that the massive border wall on which he campaigned must be part of any deal to restore DACA legislatively and, on Friday, the White House requested $18 billion toward that end. There’s just one problem with this request: $18 billion isn’t a border wall. It’s a concession.
The White House insists this $18 billion is only phase one of the great work that Trump promised would cover the border between Mexico and the United States. This first tranche would be dedicated, however, primarily to reinforcing the 400 miles of existing barriers while constructing another 316 miles of new fencing. In addition, the administration wants another $5 billion for new technology to police the border, $8 billion for additional personnel and training, and $1 billion for new access roads.
If Republicans appropriated even half of this funding, it would be a massive investment in border security, many times the $1.6 billion Congress sought for augmented border barriers in 2006. If Republicans can get Democratic support for border-security funding in exchange for the legislative reinstatement of DACA—a program that is certain to be reinstated one way or the other—it would be a significant policy victory for the GOP.
For their troubles, Democrats would claim to have secured permanent status for tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants with Republican votes and at a rather modest price. What’s more, it would pave the way for a pathway to comprehensive immigration reform, which Donald Trump has signaled his willingness to support. Finally, Democrats could realistically tell their voters that they blocked the construction of Trump’s fantastical wall, a boondoggle that would cost anywhere from $22 to $70 billion and wouldn’t effectively curb illegal immigration or drug smuggling. That’s where this deal hits the skids.
Democrats will not be able to resist the temptation to declare Donald Trump’s wall dead, murdered by the collective hand of the Democratic Party and their willing Republican accomplices. The Democratic voting base will be primed to punish any member of their party who worked with the president to achieve his campaign promises regarding immigration—especially when the administration is rescinding protections for hundreds of thousands of long-term residents with Temporary Protected Status. And by the time Donald Trump’s core base of immigration hawks discover what the president is willing to surrender in exchange for comprehensive immigration reform, compromises that go beyond what even the reviled “Gang of Eight” was willing to consider, Trump is likely to rethink the wisdom of his own negotiations. This is how a viable compromise dies.
For the true believers still holding out hope that Trump was the avatar of their discontent over existing immigration policy, it’s useful to examine an episode that occurred on Tuesday. During a bipartisan meeting at the White House open to the press, Senator Dianne Feinstein suggested that the president would be best served by signing a bill that restores DACA with the understanding that issues like border security would be addressed in a separate bill at a later date. Trump agreed to that framework until his Republican colleagues reminded him that this would amount to unconditional surrender to the Democratic Party.
If the political winds blow in Democrats’ direction in November, Trump will have a lot more opportunities to sign compromise legislation favorable to the Democratic position. And then, Republicans won’t be able to save the president from himself or his so-called deals.