Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.”
President Trump’s address Tuesday night gives him the chance to recast the entire debate over the shutdown and the wall on his terms. He is much more likely to succeed if he speaks more as leader of the nation and less as the leader of his party.
Trump can best do that by placing the wall in the context of our broader, decades-long debate over immigration policy. Building a wall won’t solve our immigration problems, in part because it would not answer the two questions that most divide Americans: What should we do with people already living here illegally? And how should we govern immigration policy going forward? But by avoiding securing the border while we debate these other issues, we have both endangered our citizens’ security and made the entire problem that much worse.
Trump should begin his speech by making these points, and by pointing out that this is not a partisan issue. Presidents, both Republican and Democratic, have been unable to solve it, and Congresses, both Republican- and Democratic-led, have objected to presidential proposals. But, Trump should note that he was elected to break the gridlock and move America forward — indeed, make it great again.
He should then pivot to his position on the wall. He needs to say that he will be flexible on what form it takes. His bottom line is to build some difficult-to-penetrate barrier in areas where it’s just not feasible to have personnel present 24/7.
Then, the president should note how the United States and other countries have used such barriers in the past to successfully reduce migrant flows. Many European countries, for example, quickly constructed fences during the Syrian refugee crisis to deter migration. Those barriers have largely worked. Our own rudimentary fencing and barrier system — which, Trump should note, Democrats have supported in the past — has also helped reduce illegal migration.
Trump, in other words, should argue that he simply wants to take what used to be a bipartisan, uncontroversial position and make it a priority.
Trump should then pivot to strike an even broader theme of national reconciliation. He should state clearly that U.S. nationality transcends ethnic or national or religious origin. But, he should add, we can’t do that if we can’t control who becomes Americans or the speed at which our country changes. Failure to do so undermines the concept of fairness, freedom and equality for all that is inherent to our national identity.
The president can note the economic impacts of illegal immigration. The Pew Research Center estimates that there were about 8 million unauthorized immigrants in the national labor force in 2016, while native-born, less-skilled Americans lost their jobs, saw their wages drop, or were forced to use government assistance such as food stamps to make ends meet. It’s not fair to our citizens, Trump can say, for employers to skirt the law to hire people who shouldn’t be here when there are already millions of Americans eager for a chance.
The president should, of course, briefly mention criminal and terrorist activity. Yes, he should say, most people here illegally don’t commit crimes and aren’t terrorists. But our uncontrolled border means that some bad guys get in, even to the point of taking Americans’ lives. That’s not right.
Most viewers will expect Trump’s speech to close with a plea for Democrats to support border barrier funding and reopen the government. But he shouldn’t — not just yet.
Trump should instead offer Democrats a deal: Support funding for border barrier construction now, in exchange for the establishment of a bipartisan presidential commission to find a permanent, comprehensive compromise that controls immigration while respecting immigrants. He could explicitly cite President Ronald Reagan’s commission that rescued Social Security from impending bankruptcy with a bipartisan solution that kept that program solvent for nearly 40 years. He should acknowledge that such a commission would require compromises from all parties — but that brokering these compromises is exactly what he was elected to do.
Good negotiation always involves using leverage, so after offering this big carrot, he can display a couple of sticks. He should continue to pledge to stand firm in the current fight: Without funding for border barriers, there will be no funding for anything. And he should note that his administration is exploring the legal basis for declaring a national emergency to fund the border barrier.
This latter point will be contentious, but he can readily note this. He should acknowledge that this action could be overridden in Congress or challenged in court, and that, as president, he recognizes his power to protect Americans is not absolute or impervious to challenge. But, he should add, it is his duty as president to act to the fullest extent of his power to protect the lives and liberties of all Americans.
Only then should Trump conclude with his expected appeal for support. But even here, he should do so on an explicitly nonpartisan and immigrant-friendly basis. He should note that he was elected because of the support of millions of people who don’t always vote Republican, and that Congress especially needs to hear from such voices. He should further note that controlling illegal immigration has the biggest effects on legal immigrants, as non-legal migrants are likeliest to live in their neighborhoods and compete for their jobs. Their voices would be welcome, too.
Such a speech would completely change the tenor of the debate. The president would still be fighting for his position, but more as a boxer and less as a brawler. He would strike themes that could resonate beyond his base. He would also demonstrate the magnanimity of spirit that Americans crave from their president, which, when he has displayed it — such as during his first State of the Union address — meets with applause.
Everyone knows Trump is the leader of his party. Now is the time for him to show he can be the leader of our nation.