I’m not sure President Donald Trump knows what a “wall” really is. Over the last few months and up to last night’s Oval Office Address, The Great Trump Wall has gone from concrete to steel; a giant slab to a series of slats, solid to a “see through wall of steel” (“I think the word you’re looking for here is ‘fence’”) – the next move might be to not even try to construct it out of actual material, but just tell the American people to all close their eyes at the same time and believe really, really hard that a wall is there.
At this point, the wall has become the one thing that President Trump has consistently denied it is: a symbol more than a physical object to be built. To concede this point, however, would be politically damaging for Trump to accomplish in one move, and so he’s been chipping away at the specifics while remaining adamant about some form of physical barrier but being fluid on the specifics. I earlier gave some tongue-in-cheek suggestions of how to resolve the impasse, but I don’t think they are far off.
Donald Trump likes to think of himself as a great dealmaker (evidence notwithstanding), and would revel in the headlines of making a great bargain with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and the Democrats. For those Democrats, their short-term strategy has been to hang the “Trump Shutdown” on the President’s shoulders (as he helpfully assisted them in doing) and play hardball with The Wall demand. In the long run, however, it could be a smart play to give Donald Trump exactly what he is asking for, make him pay a high price for it, and then do all they can to take it away.
President Trump’s desire to make a deal (Deal-making is his brand, after all) leaves him in a weak negotiating position, and for now it seems smart politics to let Trump and the Republican Party bear the blame for the shutdown. but Democrats cannot merely watch the shutdown happen indefinitely – eventually, blame and anger will extent to all of Washington, and already, some Democrats like Chris Coons of Delaware are softening their opposition to Trump and The Wall. There is, however, already a basis for a deal in place – The Wall in exchange for DACA. In fact, the Democrats can continue to play hardball and squeeze extra concessions on legal immigration, asylum and even scaling back ICE’s war on immigrants, all in exchange for Wall funding.
The trick here is that funding The Wall does not mean building The Wall. A year ago, the Department of Homeland Security suggested that the wall wouldn’t be finished until at least 2020, and the political back and forth over the past year has likely pushed that date back past the next presidential election. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in Boston for many years, it’s that construction projects go years beyond their original finish date, cost way more than is budgeted, and parts can still fall apart.
Pelosi and Schumer could claim a significant victory for gaining major concessions on the larger immigration policy, and then switch gears to guiding campaigns around the country to make The Wall an ongoing issue. They can criticize the wastefulness of the project as it goes along. Looking at Trump’s history of abandoned projects –hotels, casinos, children not named Ivanka [ok, that was mean] – does anyone actually think that this administration will construct a wall quickly and efficiently without major controversy or corruption and scandals? Democratic leadership could have a field day railing against The Wall as it’s being constructed.
Meanwhile, new Democratic stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who’s already ripped last night’s Oval Office speech) or potential presidential candidates like Beto O’Rourke can go even further and make a huge Ronald Reagan style speech in front of the construction project – “Mr. Trump, open this gate; Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!” – and make the cessation of The Wall a centerpiece of a campaign. Of course, this strategy is risky – Democrats may be blamed for caving to Trump unnecessarily, and there could develop a sunk-cost fallacy momentum for The Wall at some point – but getting a major immediate victory for an uncertain future development may be a risk worth taking.