There are at least three signs that the White House understands it won’t get what Trump wants.
.. How Trump will spin this — or if will choose to distract the country with some outrageous stunt — is anyone’s guess.
The lesson for both Democrats and Republicans is clear and goes well beyond this issue: There will be no partisan legislation through the end of Trump’s current term. A week from now, Pelosi most likely will be able to point to a Democratic victory on the single most important issue for Trump and his base. If he isn’t getting the wall, he’s not getting anything else on his wish list that requires legislative approval.
The Senate might still rubber-stamp judicial and executive branch nominations. Trump can continue to bear-hug dictators and fight with allies. He is, however, a lame duck at this point, lacking public support and legislative influence. He will have little to show for his last two years, if he makes it that far.
.. How will members of Trump’s base react to defeat on the wall? Trump might find a way to snow them, allowing them to rationalize the defeat. However, there will be some hard-liners who give it away — acknowledging that Trump folded. Whether this realization will simply depress the GOP base or whether it will spark some mini-revolt remains to be seen. In any event, Pelosi will not tire of winning.
Trump had got himself into a major jam. One problem was that he hadn’t expected to win the election, which meant that he could promise anything without worrying about whether he could deliver. In early January, The New York Times reported that Trump’s longtime former adviser, the now-indicted Roger Stone, suggested using the idea of constructing the wall to help the professional builder remember to bring up immigration, which was to be a major issue for him, at his campaign rallies.
The trick worked too well. Trump came to rely on the wall to bring rally audiences alive. “And who will pay for the wall?” he would shout to his audience. “Mexico!” the crowds would respond in unison. Of course, Mexico had no intention of paying for such a wall.
.. Pelosi clearly flummoxes Trump. He has never had to deal with a woman as smart, dignified, and tough as she is. She is his only known political rival for whom he has not been able to devise a withering nickname (as in “crooked Hillary”): “Nancy, as I call her,” he said, as he began to weaken against her, eliciting mockery in much of Washington (and on Twitter).
.. Trump’s immaturity and abysmal judgment were on display when, in his December meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, he blurted out, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security.” He added: “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.” Schumer visibly struggled not to laugh at Trump’s monumental blunder. Anyone minimally well informed knows that the person recognized as causing a shutdown loses in the opinion polls. Trump had trapped himself.
Every time there’s a government shutdown, Americans learn the same three things: that federal workers – derisively called “bureaucrats” – are human beings with families, illnesses, and other issues; that most don’t live in the Washington area, but are spread around the country; and that government contractors get hit, too – not Boeing and the like, but building cleaners, cafeteria workers, and so forth. So, in addition to the 800,000 or so government workers – some furloughed, some required to work without pay – an estimated one million others were also directly affected. Moreover, restaurants and other small businesses in the vicinity of government facilities were hurt by a lack of business. Stories of the shutdown’s harsh impact quickly began to dominate the news.
As the shutdown dragged on, politicians from both parties became increasingly restive. Republicans from areas with numerous government workers, many of them part of Trump’s base, became impatient. Many Democrats worried that though Trump was getting most of the blame for the shutdown, Pelosi’s intransigence would begin to backfire on them. But Pelosi held firm, counseling patience and explaining that as soon as Democrats offered Trump money for his wall, they would be playing his game and would lose their argument that the government must not be shut down because of a policy disagreement.
After government workers went without their first paycheck, the politically harmful anecdotes started rolling in: a woman who would have to decide between chemotherapy and paying the rent; a guard at the Smithsonian Institution threatened with eviction; parents who couldn’t explain to their children why they weren’t working and had no money.
Administration billionaires, like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, said lunkheaded things (such as, Why can’t they get a loan?). Some employees who were forced to work without pay, in particular air traffic controllers, called in sick. FBI employees, among others, were lining up at food banks. Trump’s approval ratings dropped. Airline delays became the norm. Finally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who above all wants to keep the Senate in Republican hands, warned Trump that their side was losing the public-relations war.
As is his wont, Trump tried to camouflage his retreat. In a Rose Garden speech, he rambled on with familiar misleading statistics about alleged crimes committed by illegal immigrants and lied about how drugs enter the country – omitting that most come through legal ports of entry in cars, trucks, and trains rather than through openings along the southern border.
Pelosi had outmaneuvered Trump. Suddenly, the president didn’t seem so dangerous; he had tried various stratagems:
- a nationally broadcast speech from the Oval Office that even he knew was leaden;
- a visit to the southern border that even he didn’t think would change any minds; threats to build his “wall” – which by now had become steel slats –
- by decreeing a national emergency (which would probably land in the courts), though virtually no one agreed that there was an emergency. In fact, entries into the US through the southern border are lower than they have been in years.
As it happens, on that Friday night when Trump buckled, I was at a restaurant where Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were dining with another couple. When the House Speaker left her table, customers and staff alike applauded her. A waitress standing beside me was nearly in tears. She choked out, “We need someone who will fight for us.”
This week in Advice for People Who Didn’t Ask, we focus on two men of significant ambition who are making perplexing decisions.
President Trump just took a drubbing on immigration, undone by the deadly competence of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is now generally regarded as the answer to the question: “What if a Prada bag with a gun in it became a person?” That is from former Obama speechwriter and leftist provocateur Jon Lovett, and it’s a good line because it is true.
Republicans on the Hill are negotiating for a new deal, but their team just lost and Democrats are heady. (There is always, however, the deadly competence of Mitch McConnell.)
.. What should the president do? Survey the field after battle and notice that some of the landscape has changed. For a solid month Americans again focused on illegal immigration. In a country that’s never thinking about only one thing, that was a bit of a feat. Also, Mr. Trump in his statements and meetings with the press came across, for perhaps the first time, as sincere and informed. Previously he’d looked like a guy who’d intuited a powerful issue and turned it into a line.
.. Congressional Democrats did not seem sincere, and a lot of them found it necessary to say they very much want the border secure. They made a point of speaking of their fidelity to the idea. They were telling the people back home: I acknowledge there’s a problem and want to help.
At their best, Democrats oppose the wall as a matter of political aesthetics. A big, fat, glowering slab of concrete on the edges of America is . . . brutalist, unlovely, aggressive. That’s not who we are!The word “wall” has become as symbolic to them as it is to the president. When they add, “But I’m not for the wall,” they are telling their immigrant constituents, “I don’t fear you, I’m for you.”
.. The Democrats must defeat the president on that one word.
The president should let them, while pretending it pains him.
The vast majority of the American people want order and the rule of law returned to the border. How it is done is up to the experts. They just want it done. The word “wall” has been symbolic to many of them too—it means taking the issue seriously.
But the president himself has given up on the idea of a wall specifically. He spoke often during the shutdown of barriers, structures, smart tech, dedicated personnel. He knows one big wall won’t cut it. He’s taken to talking about tunnels. Walls don’t stop tunnels.
But he can’t admit he’s backed off on the wall, and he loves his showbiz, so now and then he says, “Wall, wall,” and whoever’s around him will say, “Yeah, wall.” He should stop.
Mr. President, tear down that word.
Bret: Anyone who survives a half-dozen bankruptcies and goes on to win the presidency should never be written off.
Gail: Sigh. Good point.
Bret: Trump is a master of inventing new dramas to make us forget the old ones. And if unemployment and growth figures remain good a year from now, he’ll still have a powerful argument for a second term.
Bret: I’m not too worried. Capitalism survived the transition from horse-and-buggy to the Model T. It survived the transition from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy to a service-based one. And it survived the creative destruction of countless other forms of employment. Where, for instance, are the typesetters these days?
Gail: Well, they’re not creating hot new social media sites.
Bret: Now the question everyone is asking is what will happen to all those truck and cab and Uber drivers — a total of three million professional drivers — once driverless cars become ubiquitous. There’s no doubt the transition will be painful for some of them, and policymakers need to be sensitive on that point. But if history is any guide, things will work out. Many of those drivers will find work in industries that currently don’t exist. Just ask yourself, where was the mobile apps economy at the turn of the century? Where was the internet economy in 1990, or the personal computing industry in 1975?
Gail: I still don’t see the truck drivers working on mobile apps. And if you’re worried about the left’s solutions, I don’t see a whole lot of candidates running around talking about the state taking over the means of production.
Bret: Just wait an election cycle or two.
Gail: But if we’re moving to an economy in which trucks are automated, robots do all the warehouse work and some kind of artificial intelligence is taking orders at the restaurant, we’ll need a government that can create a whole lot of useful public service employment to make up the difference.
Bret: Heaven forfend.
Gail: And underwrite free college education for everybody who needs it.
Gail: And assure lower-middle-class people decent housing.
Bret: My soul is dying.
Gail: All of which would have to be paid for by large taxes on the very rich.
Bret: Now it’s dead.
.. Bret: I’m all for universities figuring out ways to become more affordable for those who need and deserve it, but making college free for everybody makes it bad for everybody. We would wreck a university system that’s still the envy of the world.
.. Bret: As for affordable housing, I’d sooner trust the invisible hand of the market than the heavy hand of the state. Large taxes on the very rich won’t raise the kind of income you need, and sooner rather than later those taxes will land on the decidedly less rich. And A.O.C. should start mastering her facts rather than getting into Twitter wars with fact checkers.
Gail: Hehehe. Knew I’d get you with A.O.C. That’s what people love about her.
.. Bret: I was with you until you mentioned taxes. Purely theoretical question for you (and our readers) for our next conversation: If Congress would agree to cut the top marginal rate to 33 percent in exchange for a pledge by Trump not to run again, would you take it? I’m sure we’ll be hearing from readers on the comments page.