by Roger Kimball
Bismarck said that politics is the art of the possible. It looks like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), and other Democrats regard politics as the art of intransigence.
In his brief remarks Saturday on border security, Donald Trump outlined a plan that made multiple concessions to Democratic desiderata in exchange for $5.7 billion to fund 230 miles of the wall along the southern U.S. border. Indeed, the president’s plan deliberately took cues from some Durbin’s own legislation on the subject.
Didn’t matter. Pelosi said the president’s plan was “a non-starter.”
Before rehearsing the specifics of the plan, let’s note two things. First, as the president himself noted, his plan is meant as the first step in addressing a national crisis. The crisis has two parts. One is humanitarian. The hordes pooling at the U.S.-Mexico border attempting to gain unlawful entry to the country are taking huge risks. According to the president, one-third of the women making the journey North are subject to sexual assault; some observers put the figure even higher; some mothers, Trump said, provided their girls with contraceptives in preparation for the journey. Many of the children, most often brought along by adults, are also frequently subject to abuse. Some of those banging on our southern gates are hapless people just seeking a better life; but many are hardened criminals or aspiring terrorists.
The second part of the crisis concerns national security. The southern border is a huge conduit for dangerous drugs and dangerous thugs. Moreover, the sheer number of Hispanics seeking entry to the United States has already affected the demographic profile and character of large parts of the Southwest. This is a subject that was eloquently anatomized by Victor Davis Hanson in Mexifornia: A State of Becoming. That was several years ago and the situation has only gotten worse in the intervening years.
As the president stressed, his plan is merely a stopgap, a first step at addressing a serious problem that has festered for decades and that, if ignored, has the potential to tear the country apart.
The president wants money for humanitarian aid, additional immigration agents, technology to identify drugs coming into the country, and for more judges to expedite the adjudication of the huge backlog of cases (some 900,000) resulting from illegal immigration. It also, as I mentioned, calls for $5.7 billion to fund the construction of a physical barrier in certain critical spots identified by border agents.
In exchange for this, and for ending the partial government shutdown, the president has offered a three-year extension of benefits (including work permits, Social Security numbers, and protection from deportation) to the 700,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – extended to those brought here illegally by their parents or others – as well as a three-year extension of benefits to some 300,000 people whose status in the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program is due to expire. This would give the courts time to adjudicate an ongoing lawsuit regarding DACA recipients and provide Congress time to work on a more global fix to our broken immigration system.
The president is offering too much for too little. Just a year ago, Congress was talking about appropriating $25 billion to fund the construction of a wall. In my view, the United States is already taking too many immigrants in absolute terms, too many without English and without the skills to contribute to our society, and too high a proportion from places outside the Anglosphere.
But it doesn’t matter what I think about U.S. immigration. What matters is the crisis – a national-security as well as a humanitarian crisis – on our southern border and the president’s determination to do something about it.
Saul Alinsky taught his acolytes that “the issue is never the issue,” and that is certainly true in this case. Donald Trump is endeavoring to do two things: 1) Make good on a central campaign promise and 2) to take at least some beginning steps towards solving a huge, complex, and hitherto intractable problem.
The Democrats are attempting to destroy Trump, gambling that prolonging the government shutdown redounds to their benefit while also calculating that more illegal immigrants means more welfare recipients, which means more Democratic voters.
I think they have badly misjudged the situation. For one thing, it is my sense that the public, while not wild about the shutdown, is also disgusted by the patent refusal of Congress to do its duty and negotiate in good faith. The conservative press reminded us of that by publishing pictures of Democratic Senators cavorting with bikini-clad blondes in Puerto Rico while furloughed government employees stewed in their juices back home.
The president reminded us of this when he wrote a letter to Nancy Pelosi informing her that her planned trip to Afghanistan on military transport had been postponed since the government was laboring under the shutdown. He noted that she was, of course, free to “fly commercial” – delicious, that – but said that her proper place was back in Washington at the negotiating table.
That, my friends, was a brilliant example of the art of the deal, the section on “How to Punish Renegades,” in action.
The issue is never the issue. The ostensible issue here is the government shutdown and border security.
The real issue is the wall – which Trump must be seen to have accomplished – and the Democrats’ determination to deny him that victory.
As I pointed out here a couple of weeks ago, the wall is Trump’s “read-my-lips” moment. It is an existential issue for him, just as not raising taxes was for George H. W. Bush. The Democrats destroyed Bush by inveigling him to raise taxes after he had promised not to. They hope to repeat the success by preventing Trump from fulfilling what was perhaps his single most important, from a vote-getting perspective, campaign promise.
Hence the Democrats’ intransigence. They hope to force Trump to back down. Although the plan he proffered today gives away more than I am happy about, it nonetheless iterates his fundamental determination to build the wall – “one way or the other,” as he put it.
He offered serious concessions in an effort to compromise. Everyone could see that. But he also stressed another key campaign theme: America First. His first duty, he said in his remarks, is to the American people, to their security, prosperity, and civic integrity. About that, he offered no compromise.
The Democrats obviously believe that because of the government shutdown, they hold a winning hand of cards. I think they are completely mistaken. The president has shown both that he is willing to compromise in good faith and also that he is willing to inflict serious pain on the Democrats should they refuse to meet him halfway.
Every day that goes by without a solution is a day that the president will increase the pressure on the Democrats. Nancy Pelosi is not going to Afghanistan at taxpayer expense. On Friday, an executive directive went to the heads of all departments informing them there would be no governmental air travel without explicit White House permission until the shutdown ends.
Trump is playing hardball. The Democrats are not used to that. It would be a good thing for us all if they stopped acting like petulant children and started taking the commonweal of the country to heart, instead of performing for their dwindling and disgusted constituency.
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Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball lectures widely and has appeared on national radio and television programs as well as the BBC.