A shutdown fight that’s about much more than a wall

Carolyn Kaster/AP
As seen from a window outside the Oval Office, President Trump gives a prime-time address about border security on Jan. 8, 2018, at the White House in Washington.

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In the Trump era, the big issues of the day often live on two planes: the actual and the meta, the issues themselves and the outsize meaning they take on at a time of pitched partisan conflict. And so it is with President Trump’s battle with congressional Democrats to secure $5.7 billion for a United States-Mexico border wall. The partial government shutdown is at Day 19 over the impasse, after dueling televised statements Tuesday night that offered no way out. But the wall itself – and the overarching issue of immigration reform – is only part of the story. For Mr. Trump, the wall was a core campaign promise, even a key to his election, as it came to stand for his effort to defend Americans’ safety and identity. The government shutdown over wall funding can also be seen as an effort to disrupt “business as usual” in Washington, another Trump promise. “In many ways, he is reassuring his base that he’s still very much committed to this principle here that helped get him elected,” says Gary Rose, a political scientist at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Why We Wrote This

The impasse over funding for a barrier on the US-Mexico border reflects broader disagreements between President Trump and Democrats over questions of security and American identity.

In the Trump era, the big issues of the day often live on two planes: the actual and the meta, the issues themselves and the outsize meaning they take on at a time of pitched partisan conflict.

And so it is with President Trump’s battle with congressional Democrats to secure $5.7 billion for a United States-Mexico border wall. The partial government shutdown is at Day 19 over the impasse, after dueling televised statements Tuesday night that offered no way out. Mr. Trump’s visit to the border Thursday is expected to be mainly a photo opportunity to reinforce his case for more wall money.

But the wall itself – and the overarching issue of a US immigration system that both parties agree needs reform – is only part of the story. For Trump, the wall was a core campaign promise, even a key to his election, as it came to stand for his effort to defend Americans’ safety and identity. The government shutdown over wall funding can also be seen as an effort to disrupt “business as usual” in Washington, another Trump promise.

Why We Wrote This

The impasse over funding for a barrier on the US-Mexico border reflects broader disagreements between President Trump and Democrats over questions of security and American identity.

“In many ways, he is reassuring his base that he’s still very much committed to this principle here that helped get him elected,” to build the wall and make Mexico pay for it, says Gary Rose, a political scientist at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

“But in fairness, this is not just pure politics,” he adds. “Immigration is a serious issue, and there is a problem at the border.”

Much of the public discussion has been swamped by debates over the most basic of terms, including whether the situation at the border constitutes a crisis. Trump sprinkled his nine-minute Oval Office statement with that word, including three times in his most memorable line: “This is a humanitarian crisis – a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” he said.

Fact-checkers have worked overtime to parse almost every presidential utterance, some posting their counterassertions in real time as Trump spoke. Researchers at Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, produced a compendium of their results the morning after.

“It’s true that in recent months the number of people caught trying to cross the US-Mexico border illegally has risen, and was actually higher in November ... than it was when Trump was sworn in,” the report says. “But the total remains far below what it was several years ago, before President George W. Bush doubled the number of Border Patrol agents.”

In other contexts, Trump critics argue that the border is in “crisis,” given the recent deaths of two migrant children and the children who remain separated from their parents, even after the administration suspended its policy of family separation at the border.

To Trump voters, a lot of the fact-checking is conducted by liberal media aimed at discrediting the president, and not worthy of attention. Polls show that Republicans still strongly support Trump’s position on an expanded border wall.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday, 77 percent of Republicans said they want additional border fencing, and 54 percent said they support Trump keeping part of the government closed until Congress approves funding for the wall. 

Overall, however, Trump is losing ground on the shutdown. Some 51 percent of US adults say Trump “deserves most of the blame,” up 4 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted right as the shutdown began, Dec. 21 to 25.

Still, even if he ends up compromising to end the shutdown, Trump probably won’t have to worry about losing his core supporters.

“Public opinion is pretty well set on either side,” says Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political discourse at Texas A&M University. “There’s not much room for persuasion.”

Trump has also been considering declaring a national emergency and moving to repurpose Department of Defense funds to add more security structures at the border. Such a move would likely face immediate litigation and deepen his conflict with congressional Democrats.

Before Trump’s statement to the nation Tuesday night, his first as president from the Oval Office, speculation raged that he might use that televised appearance to declare an emergency. Instead, he sought to put more pressure on the Democrats, who made clear they had no intention of giving in to his demands.

“He’s really in a quandary,” says Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. “He doesn’t want to look like a loser.”

The obvious way out is a compromise – and polls show the public wants to see more of that in Washington. A handful of Republican senators, including some facing tough reelection fights in 2020, have floated proposals that would end the shutdown immediately in return for a serious focus on immigration reform, including additional border security.

In December, right as the shutdown started, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham co-wrote a column proposing a trade-off: fund the wall in exchange for resolving the immigration status of “Dreamers,” young people who were brought to the US illegally as children.

Various versions of this trade-off have been out there for at least a year, but so far Trump and the Democrats haven’t been willing or able to make it work. Still, the signature of Mr. Gingrich on a wall-for-“Dreamers” proposal is significant.

As speaker in the 1990s, Gingrich played a key role in an extended government shutdown. Now he’s an informal adviser to Trump, and in a Monitor interview before the shutdown started, he talked up compromise with the newly empowered Democrats.

“He has a real opportunity to reach out,” Gingrich said.

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