Donald Trump lost the shutdown. He played a bad hand poorly and, in the end, settled for fewer concessions on border security than he would have received had he never pursued a shutdown in the first place. But Democrats painted themselves into their own corner. If Trump is savvy enough, he can exploit that and shatter the unity among congressional Democrats.
On February 15, short-term funding for the government runs out, and the country will be thrust back into another unpopular shutdown. The clock is ticking, and the president has a very short window to change the prevailing political dynamic. Polls have begun to find that he is hemorrhaging support on his signature issue—border security. Worse, Democrats have begun to look like the more reasonable party on that issue. But that could change in the wake of his State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress on February 5.
In that speech before the country and Congress, the president should make a point of noting that compromise on border security is possible, if only because every party in this conflict showed a willingness to bend during the shutdown. The concrete wall that Trump sought at the beginning of the shutdown was just a few miles of “steel slats” by the end, and he offered to extend temporary protections for “Dreamers.” Whether Democrats see any of it as an acceptable compromise is immaterial. Trump bent.
The president can also point out the ways in which Democrats offered to compromise. In her response to the president’s Oval Office address on January 8, Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that Democrats do favor a range of border security proposals: hardened infrastructure and new access roads along the border, new technology and increased personnel at ports of entry, more border patrol agents, and innovative technological solutions to “detect unauthorized crossings.” All that would cost far more than the paltry $5.7 billion the president sought for his “steel slats.” Indeed, only six months ago, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer entertained the prospect of reintroducing $40 billion for border security measures as part of a broader compromise immigration bill. Whether that compromise is acceptable to Republicans is, again, immaterial. It is compromise.
“But that compromise bill was crafted in 2013,” you say. “A lot has changed since then.” Correct, and that’s the rub. The Democratic Party’s grassroots activist base is increasingly hostile to any border enforcement. The party’s brightest rising star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voted against a measure to reopen the government because it also funded the law enforcement agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A prolonged debate among Democrats over how much border enforcement they would actually support in legislation would expose these divisions and pit the party’s leadership against its popular and uncompromising progressive wing just as the 2020 primary cycle has inaugurated a sprint among Democrats to the left.
The border security provisions Pelosi talked about are not as popular with her members as she pretends. But because the abstract concept of border security is popular with voters, she was compelled to offer these concessions only to soften what was otherwise irrationally recalcitrant opposition to a few miles of fencing along the border. Trump should call her bluff.
For Trump to realize this vision, however, he would have to abandon his wall.
It’s not as hard as it sounds—he’s already two-thirds of the way there. Through the process of attrition, what was once a $25 billion ask for wall funding for a thousand miles of towering physical barriers has been winnowed down to a paltry a few billion for sparse miles of fencing. Republicans in Congress never wanted a wall. They had many opportunities to fund that project, and they balked every time. The president is already bucking his more obdurate fans for whom the wall is a sacred pledge, and thoughtful immigration hawks would gladly trade the wall for meaningful reforms to curb visa overstays and the drugs that enter the United States through ports. If Trump was going to lose his base over the wall, he’d have lost them already.
What’s more, as others have noted, Trump will have to sideline anti-immigrant fanatics like Stephen Miller. He seems to exist now with the singular mission of poisoning the president’s efforts to secure advantage over Democrats with unreasonable and cruel provisions. Forcing asylum seekers facing imminent persecution in their home countries to remain there for the better part of a year or creating disparate degrees of citizenship for naturalized immigrants are nonstarters with exceedingly narrow appeal. Proposals like those will never be realized in legislation. They only frustrate the president’s efforts to fracture the Democratic party and appear the more responsible steward of American national security imperatives.
Trump has an opportunity to drive a wedge right through the middle of the Democratic Party and cast himself as the sensible and prudent voice in the room on immigration, but he has a short window to do it. And it means he would have to abandon the irrelevant MacGuffin to which he’s clung from the beginning of his campaign for the White House. The scenario may be unlikely, but that doesn’t make it unreasonable.