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Opinion Democrats have a big opportunity to deal Trump a crushing blow

(Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)
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President Trump and Republicans just ran the most virulently xenophobic midterm election campaign in recent memory, closing on a message that plastered the country with dark and terrifying imagery depicting immigrants as violent criminal invaders. They were rewarded by an epic wipeout: The Democrats’ national lead in House votes is now nearly 10 million, the largest midterm raw-vote margin in U.S. history.

Are we seriously debating whether Trump is going to get billions and billions of dollars for a wall on the southern border?

New reporting indicates that Trump continues to demand his wall, and that the resulting standoff could still prompt a government shutdown. This week, Congress is expected to pass a short-term spending measure keeping the government open for two weeks past the Dec. 7 deadline, but after that, Trump is still signaling that he’ll force a showdown just before the end of the year.

If Democrats in Congress and President Trump can't reach an agreement, there could be a government shutdown in late December. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

A protracted government shutdown may or may not happen — it probably won’t — but let’s be clear on this one point: Democrats simply must not allow the results of this standoff to muddy the meaning of last month’s elections.

The battle right now centers not just on how much money Congress will give Trump, but also on what counts as funding for a “wall.” Democrats and Republicans on a key Senate committee have already reached an agreement to provide an additional $1.6 billion in border security money, but with restrictions against building a wall. Trump has been demanding at least $5 billion in unfettered wall money. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats insist that Trump must accept the lesser figure.

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Democrats have offered Trump that or an alternative: a one-year continuing resolution for Department of Homeland Security spending at a slightly lower level of $1.3 billion with the same restrictions. House Democrats have declined so far to endorse the $1.6 billion appropriation, but they do support the $1.3 billion continuing resolution.

The complicating factor is the question over what that $1.6 billion — or that $1.3 billion — would actually pay for. Some immigrants’ rights advocates recently tore into Schumer over the $1.6 billion offer, arguing that it amounted to a cave on Trump’s wall. But the picture is more complicated than this. First, the $1.6 billion is part of a deal that was reached months ago, and it essentially continues a level of spending that was in place last year.

Second, as a recent NBC News piece noted, the language in the compromise bill largely restricts this spending to a type of “fencing” that has already been deployed — continuing a framework restricting this spending that was also in place last year — meaning it just isn’t money for the new type of wall that Trump envisions.

Politico now reports that even Republicans want Trump to accept the $1.6 billion offer. To get him to do so, they are trying to persuade him to use it to declare victory on the wall by casting this money as wall spending. One GOP senator gamely cast the offer as spending for a “wall system.” Emphasis mine.

Of course, this very ambiguity is itself a problem for immigration advocates, and in a sense they have a point. In an obvious way, the money would go toward the beefing up of a border barrier, which is what Trump wants. Democrats, too, are exploiting this ambiguity to argue that this spending in no way, shape or form gives Trump the wall that he wants. But it does give him some of what he wants for the border, though in a much more limited sense. Of course, the bottom line is that Democrats do support spending more money on border security — even if you don’t call it a “wall” — than many immigration advocates think is necessary.

Advocates are also worried that this $1.6 billion is not going to be the final offer, with some fretting that Dems might agree to more money or to weaker restrictions on what it can be used to build. “Democrats must remain resolute, and not agree to go above the $1.6 billion or to relax the restrictions,” one advocate told me.

Muddying the message of the midterms?

Does the current $1.6 billion offer muddy the meaning of the midterms? I confess to feeling a bit conflicted on this point, but on balance, I lean toward thinking it does not. For one thing, it continues a spending structure that was already in place last year, and it has been widely declared — correctly — that Trump has not gotten his wall.

Indeed, Trump is rejecting this offer precisely because it does not give him the money he wants for the wall that haunts his imagination. Trump himself has explicitly said that this type of existing fencing is not akin to the wall he wants. What’s more, Trump’s allies in the conservative media have declared that spending restricted in this way constitutes a big defeat for Trump’s wall.

Probably the best outcome is the $1.3 billion continuing resolution. If Democrats can hold the line here, or somewhat less optimally at $1.6 billion, while keeping the restrictions in place, it would clearly deal Trump a big loss — as Trump and his allies have themselves defined a loss — on his most important symbolic issue.

Democrats must shore up the notion that the midterms represented an unambiguous public rejection of his xenophobic nationalism. Republicans ran despicable race-baiting ads across the country that echoed Trump’s own message, which employed all kinds of lies about migrants and asylum seekers to portray them as a malicious, destructive, invasive force. He even used the military as a prop to bolster the GOP’s campaign propaganda. Democratic polling showed that voters roundly rejected this message.

At a time when our out-of-control president is basing all kinds of consequential policy decisions on fictions, hallucinations and naked self-interest, the incoming House Democratic majority must also try to restore a sense of empiricism and good-faith information-gathering to the governing process. Trump continues to demand a wall that everyone knows is based on fake policy justifications and is all about delivering a “win” that his rally crowds — representing his ever-shrinking base — can roar about.

Voters soundly rejected Trump’s closing hate message and bottomless bad faith in governing. Democrats should unambiguously stand for a rejection of them as well.