It’s obviously not such a Happy New Year for many federal government employees, with the current partial shutdown continuing and no end immediately in sight. What continues to puzzle me is why the Democrats have taken such a hard line – that is, if their substantive and political beliefs about the Border Wall whose funding is at the heart of the dispute are to be taken seriously.
On substance, the Democrats insist on portraying the Wall as at best a grossly inefficient way to improve border security – and certainly much less effective than the “enhanced fencing, technology, drones, satellites, lighting, sensors, cell phone towers” they insist are “the things the experts have clearly indicated would improve our border security.”
Politically, the Democrats say they’re confident that the Wall is unpopular – as made clear by their new proposal to end the impasse. The plan would fully fund most federal agencies through the upcoming September end of the current fiscal year. But it would only the extend through the middle of next month the current appropriation for the Department of Homeland Security (the lead agency on border security) minus any Wall funding.
Although the Democrats’ plan would include money for “fencing,” their strategy clearly assumes that the public values ending at least this episode of Washington dysfunction much more highly than building President Trump’s Wall. Moreover, most polls seem to bear out this analysis. (See in particular here.)
But it’s at least arguable that if the Democrats do indeed view the Wall as “a 5th century solution to a 21st century problem”, and a political loser to boot, they should approve Mr. Trump’s full $5 billion request. After all, a Wall that won’t work by definition won’t present significant obstacles to greater flows of migrants with whose plight the Democrats ardently sympathize. They could depict themselves as the champions of compromise and reason who were willing to go the extra mile to work with an extremist president in the interests of restoring at least minimal normality to American public life. And the cost to taxpayers would be meager (in federal budget terms).
The Democrats’ acceptance of the President’s proposal would indeed give Mr. Trump a political victory of sorts by enabling him to proclaim that he’s kept a campaign promise. But this victory would only resonate with his base – which by itself isn’t nearly big enough to reelect him.
In this vein, even better for the Democrats: They’re surely confident that time is on their side. First, even if Wall installation began tomorrow, it couldn’t possibly deliver on its restrictionist promise for many months – or, crucially, by the time presidential campaign 2020 is in full swing. So the Democrats’ would have many months’ worth of opportunities to claim somewhat credibly that the Wall is indeed a failure.
Second, they show every sign of believing that in the 2020 elections they’ll regain the political power they’ll need to scrap this project. That’s undoubtedly why so many in the party have expressed an interest in running for president. And the Democrats’ chances of taking control of the Senate, and thus of the entire Congress, look promising, as well – as they’re defending many fewer seats than the Republicans.
All of which brings up some alternative explanations for the Democrats’ shutdown strategy. For example, maybe they’re (and in particular, their genuinely Open Borders-infatuated leaders) are actually afraid that a Wall (in tandem of course with other security measures) will work, at least once it’s finally in place. Maybe they’re so strongly opposed to more physical barriers because these structures will reduce the numbers of migrants who manage to set foot on American soil, and thereby become eligible to be handled by a loophole-filled immigration law and policy framework that ensures many of them will be released into American society – and ultimately freed to add to pressure in key (Democratic) states for ever wider voting rights.
And maybe they’re not so confident about their 2020 chances either for the White House and in the Senate. Maybe they’re consequently counting on showdowns like that over the Wall to bait the President into still more of the kind of harsh-sounding tweets, and especially threats, that unmistakably turn off many 2016 Trump supporters outside his hard core – and who exhibited buyers’ remorse in last year’s midterms. Ditto for supporters of many of their own midterms victors – centrist politicians who didn’t promise to shut down ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency), and who appear truly concerned with border security.
Maybe the Democrats are simply playing for time and hoping that a prolonged shutdown and./or devastating findings from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will combine to destroy Mr. Trump’s reelection chances whatever chaos emerges at the Border from a continuing failure to enhance security – and even after the government is reopened. And maybe it’s some combination of the above (since a single cause rarely explains major political, social, cultural, or historical developments).
None of these possibilities mean that the Democrats’ shutdown strategy per se will fail. Indeed, the President has already cut his funding request significantly, and shown flexibility on the ludicrously crucial phrasing (“wall,” “fence,” “barrier”) aspects of the issue. But I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if, because of the above analysis, and particularly of an even greater migrant flood it might bring, a resulting Democratic victory turned out to be Pyrrhic.