President Donald Trump has lost the first round of negotiations for his promised border wall, big league, and he should be glad of it. If he plays it just right, he might be able to wriggle his way out of the ill-advised promise altogether.
That won’t be easy, though, as Trump made it the centerpiece of his campaign. His rally audiences would serenade him with chants of “Build That Wall!,” which was also emblazoned on many of the t-shirts in the crowded arenas, and he frankly admitted to The New York Times that “You know, if it gets a little bit boring, if I see people starting to so of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall,’ and they go nuts.” As the negotiations for the big spending resolution started he insisted that funding for the wall be included but he was already starting to be a little less insistent when he told the Associated Press over the weekend that “People want the border wall. My base definitely wants the border wall. My base really wants it — you’ve been to many of the rallies. OK, the thing they want more than anything is the wall.”
Trump always played The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as he exited his rallies, too, so the base should have been forewarned that some promises would be hard to keep. He’d also promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, and when he’d ask his rallies “Who’s gonna for pay for it” they’d chant back Mexico, so asking Congress for the money was already a big concession. Trump did “tweet” his reassurance that “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying in some form, for the badly needed border wall,” but he eventually was forced to concede that it’s not the thing most badly needed at the moment.
If some spending resolution or another doesn’t get passed by Friday, right around the time everyone will be writing their “First 100 Days” stories, the government will go into another one of those occasional partial shutdowns. They’re fine by us, but most people seem to intensely dislike them, and they always get the most awful press, and no matter what all the fuss is about the Republicans always seem to get the worst of it. With the Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House even most the creative talk radio hosts would find it hard to blame it on the Democrats, so at the moment job one is avoiding poll-damaging unpleasantness.
Trump seems to have thought this would give him the needed leverage to get the money to start building the wall he’d promised his base, and within the 100-day deadline he’d promised, but he quickly realized that these sorts of negotiations are different from a real estate deal.
As much as those people at the rallies wanted the wall, all the public opinions polls showed that a solid majority of the country was against it and only 38 percent or so had any real enthusiasm for the idea. The opposition included all the Republican-held border districts, too, where landowners were facing eminent domain seizures of old family ranches and Indian reservation land and the occasional non-Trump-owned golf course, and all sorts of local economies were going to be inconveniently cut off from valued neighboring customers and friends. There were also unanswered questions about the wall’s cost and whether the money would be more effectively spent on drones and increased patrols and checking up on visa overstays and other more traditional methods of border enforcement, and just how Mexico might be forced to pay for it, and whether such a strain on relations with a neighbor was really needed at a time when net migration from Mexico is about zero, so there were likely to be some other Republicans resisting as well.
With his own approval ratings around 42 percent in an average of all the polls Trump doesn’t enjoy the kind of political capital that would cow a border Congressman enough to defy his district, and those other reluctant Republicans are also in districts where some distance from the president might be advised, so he shrewdly agreed that he’d sign whatever spending resolution the congressional Republicans could come up with to avoid a shut-down. A big victory for the base in time for those 100 day stories would have been nice, but having all the stories be about a government shutdown because of the president’s insistence on a wall that most people don’t want and even members of his own party opposed would have been disastrous, and Trump understands the publicity game well enough to know that.
Trump “tweeted” enough tough talk that his rally-going supporters can console themselves that “at least he fights,” and we expect most of them will be satisfied with that. They’re still promised that Trump will fight again for the wall, eventually, in some form, but it’s hard to imagine any time in the near future when there won’t be some new spending resolution or other impending crisis that’s more pressing, and all the arguments those border counties and the rest of the country are making will still be valid, and Mexico almost certainly won’t be any more inclined to pay for it. At this moment the wall seems another case of you can’t always get what you want.
“But if you try sometimes,” as the Stones’ song goes, “you might just find you get what you need.” Trump’s already touting all the more traditional border enforcement that he’s beefed up, most of which we and a majority of the rest of country heartily approve of, and we’re quite confident that the funding for it won’t be affected whatever spending resolution the congressional Republicans come up with to avert a government shutdown. This is a happy enough resolution for us, at the moment.
After all the court interventions and more moderate counsel the president has been getting lately his more-muscular-than-Obama approach to border enforcement is pretty much what all of those supposedly soft-on-immigration Republican presidential contenders endorsed, and about the same as the Mitt Romney plan that Trump then decried as inhumane, but the base will probably be satisfied by the familiar argument that only Trump could have made such an audacious opening bid with something so outrageous as a wall stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean as a brilliant ploy to reach these common sense solutions. His more ingenious apologists are also fond of saying that you have to take Trump seriously but not literally, and Trump is already suggesting that c’mon, he was talking metaphorically about common sense border enforcement and not an actual big, beautiful wall that no Mexican could find a ladder long enough to climb over, because c’mon, that idea’s so outrageous no one would take it literally.
We think a lot of those people at the rallies took it literally, and were looking forward to seeing some chastened Mexican handing over a literal check, but sooner or later they’ll come around. Although some of his supporters are already sore about his newfound moderate positions on issues ranging from China’s alleged currency manipulation to a Syrian missile strike that didn’t seem to have an “America First” rationale, if Trump keeps up the robust border enforcement he can let his big, beautiful wall fade into memory without taking too much of a hit in the polls. Gradually dropping the wall issue probably won’t win over any of Trump’s most determined critics, but it will deprive them of a potent issue, and he’ll have easier dealings in the future with certain Republican congressmen to accomplish something more popular.
Trump was shrewd to take a loss this round, and we hope he’s shrewd enough to lose that crazy wall idea altogether.
— Bud Norman