One of the worst mental habits in today’s political coverage is the bias you sometimes see toward presuming that President Trump possesses hidden mystical political powers. This is especially pronounced in the immigration debate: While it is true that he won in 2016 after campaigning on the issue, there was no reason to believe he had really identified a deep strain of angst about immigration and, indeed, when he closed out the midterms campaign on a message of hate and xenophobia, Republicans suffered an epic wipe-out at the polls.
When the president shut down the government over the wall, his allies widely chanted once again that hidden public sentiment would lift him to victory. But Trump slid in the polls, and now he’s officially caved:
President Trump on Friday announced a deal with congressional leaders to temporarily reopen the government while talks continue on his demand for border wall money, handing Democrats a major victory in the protracted standoff.
The pact, announced by Trump from the Rose Garden at the White House, would reopen shuttered government departments for three weeks while leaving the issue of $5.7 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall to further talks.
Congress will now pass funding for the government through Feb. 15, with border-security funding continuing at current levels — but with no money for Trump’s border wall. House and Senate leaders will enter into conference negotiations over a longer-term funding bill for the Homeland Security Department.
Which gives Democrats a real opening to seize control of this debate — not just to score another political victory, but to put their own stamp on the conversation over immigration and the border, and push it in a much more constructive direction.
At his announcement on Friday, the president vowed that he would keep fighting for his wall. “We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier," Trump said. “If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on Feb. 15 again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency.”
In other words, if he doesn’t get his wall at the end of the three weeks, it’s national emergency time.
But make no mistake: Now that Trump has backed down, in the face of the unified refusal by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to budge on his wall funding, it will be harder, not easier, for Trump to keep up this fight.
It is difficult to imagine congressional Republicans, who just lived through this disaster, having any appetite for a second round. As a senior Republican told Politico’s John Bresnahan: "I hope the president remembers this when the Freedom Caucus types tell him what to do next time.”
The polls have all confirmed that a majority of Americans blamed Trump and Republicans for the shutdown. A second shutdown over the same issue — dragging the country once again into the same mess we’ve already been through — would look even more unhinged.
So Democrats will be heading into these conference negotiations with real leverage. One clue as to how they might proceed can be found in a slew of border-security measures they were in the process of drawing up, which they were going to release, but then did not have to once Trump gave in.
According to people familiar with the Democratic plans, they were preparing to roll out a package that included added drug-scanning technology at ports of entry and other infrastructure upgrades at those ports; and more than $500 million for beefed-up medical care for asylum-seeking families and children, as well as more family-friendly processing facilities. In other bills, Democrats have also passed expenditures of around $500 million for more immigration judges, and around $500 million in economic aid to Central American countries.
These requests form a kind of template for what Democrats might try to secure from these conference committee talks.
The core point to this posture this is that there actually are solutions to the humanitarian crisis at the border that would make a big difference. That’s the real crisis: The crush of asylum-seeking families really is dramatically on the rise, while the levels of single adult border crossings are at historic lows. Trump keeps exaggerating the latter problem to make the case for his wall, but the former problem is the really big challenge right now.
The president, of course, will insist that Republicans in these talks continue to demand the $5.7 billion he wants for the wall. And, in his remarks on Friday, he hinted that he will keep pushing for the dramatic restrictions to asylum-seeking that Senate Republicans tried to smuggle into the last spending bill, which the Democrats rejected.
So these talks will be tough going. Democrats will have to draw a line against those asylum restrictions and argue instead that, while the rise in asylum-seeking really has created new challenges, the answers are beefed-up humanitarian protections for asylum-seeking migrants, money for more judges to unclog backlogs, and a regional strategy and investments designed to address the root causes of these migrations.
On border security, Democrats will have to hold the line against spending on Trump’s wall, in particular. Still, they can perhaps give ground on the amounts that will be spent on border security more generally, pushing to channel the funds into real 21st-century security solutions.
But Trump is now weakened by this loss. His case for the wall, which was based on fantasies and lies, has been soundly rejected by the public. Democrats can become the party that represents a reality-based approach to the complicated problems we really face at the border right now, one that stands for the notion that asylum-seeking is a right, that those seeking refuge here deserve humane treatment and a fair hearing, and that there is not a national security crisis at the border, no matter how many times Trump tweets in ALL CAPS that it is so.
Trump’s pathologies, bad faith, and hostage-taking have created a terrible fiasco. But it has now been clearly demonstrated that the Democratic answer to all those things is, “No, we’re not doing this anymore; no, we’re not caving; the answer is no, no, no.” Hopefully, this, along with a restoration of real debate via legitimate congressional processes, can lead to a better outcome.