So, having won round one so resoundingly, what should the Democrats do next about the wall?
One thing: Remember that this is Donald Trump’s problem. And Mitch McConnell’s, and Kevin McCarthy’s (who? The House minority leader). They’re the ones who are trying to push a minority position down the country’s throat. The president in particular, of course. But majorities of Americans are against the wall and always have been. So let Trump turn that around, if he can.
It’s worth chortling again for a few paragraphs over how ridiculous and weak they made Trump look. Remember, this is a man who spent years, going way back before he started campaigning in 2015, saying over and over and over how easy being president would be. Bring the Chinese to heel? Very easy. Make Middle East peace? Please. Get Mexico to pay for the wall? Piece of cake. He’s been saying these things in books and television appearances for years.
I can’t imagine who believed him—and if anyone out there was a big enough idiot to do so, that’s their problem. But the point is that he believed it. He actually thought being president would be easy (and the way he does it, watching TV for hours a day and calling Sean Hannity and ignoring 95 percent of what the government under him does, it sort of is, but that’s another matter).
For two years, it was kind of easy. But in January, he met reality.
Nancy Pelosi took him to the cleaners, and she deserves enormous credit. Her State of the Union gambit was just inspired. The awesome tell at the way she discombobulated Trump was that he couldn’t even come up with a nickname for her. Did you see that? “Nancy Pelosi, or Nancy, as I call her…” Wow, Don, good one! Her first name!
Taking nothing away from her, though, it wasn’t all Pelosi. Chuck Schumer was the one who goaded Trump into accepting responsibility for the shutdown at that Dec. 11 meeting. And then remember that the cave was set into motion by those two votes in the Senate last Thursday, when only one Democrat voted for the Republican bill (Joe Manchin, whose vote didn’t matter anyway because it didn’t change anything), while six Republicans voted for the Democratic version.
That was huge. McConnell and people from the Trump White House had thought that they could peel off some moderate Senate Democrats to join their bill, pass some wall funding, and then jam Pelosi and the House Democrats. But they didn’t come close. They got Manchin’s meaningless vote, but they didn’t even get Doug Jones to sign on.
And it was right after those votes that McConnell called Chuck Schumer into his office. McConnell wanted Schumer to agree to a down payment on the wall. Schumer said no and counter-offered a continuing resolution and put together a conference committee to negotiate this. And this is exactly what’s happening.
I’ve followed this stuff closely for many years, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve complained about the Democrats wilting during some congressional confrontation, not staying unified, and getting their hats handed to them by Republicans. Well—no more. The Democrats can play hardball now. They did it already on health care and tax reform, when they didn’t lose a single vote. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t do more of it going forward, on the upcoming debt ceiling fight, on budget stuff, and in the House on investigations and subpoenas of every kind. They have the leverage now to deny Trump a win on anything.
Yes, I know, the art of compromise is lost. It's true.
This is partly a reflection of an overall lamentable trend toward starker red and blue divisions. That is, if there were Democrats from Tennessee and Nebraska and Republicans from New York and Maryland, this wouldn’t be necessary. But there aren’t, so it is. Democrats spent years psychically resisting this reality, I think, while Republicans pushed it and embraced it. But in the age of Trump, there’s no denying it.
So this week, this conference committee that Schumer suggested will start their talks. The Democratic conferees are Richard Durbin, Pat Leahy, and Jon Tester from the Senate; and from the House, a sextet led by Nita Lowey of upstate New York. They’re mostly pretty senior, and the only lefty in the bunch is Barbara Lee of Oakland. The Senate Republicans are led by Richard Shelby of Alabama, who’s plenty conservative but not really a MAGA fire-breather.
There’s always a chance that when you get 18 or so people in a room away from the cameras and their Twitter accounts, they might find a way to cut a deal. And maybe the Democrats should cut one—if and only if they get just massive concessions on Dreamers and temporary protected status people and whatever else.
But what they absolutely should not do in this case is make a deal for the sake of seeming like reasonable people. Healthy majorities of Americans are against the wall and think it’s basically pointless or won’t do the job Trump swears it will do. So the position they’re representing right now—no wall—is the reasonable position. They don’t need to budge an inch from that.
Let Trump spend three weeks making his case. If he moves public opinion, we’ll know. Pelosi has 40, 45 members in her caucus from purple districts where, in theory, opposition to or indifference toward the wall could be changed to support. If that happens, those members will start coming to her and saying they’re feeling some heat and they need a deal.
I wouldn’t bet on that happening. Trump already told The Wall Street Journal that he'll shut the government down again and considers a deal to be less than a 50-50 shot. He has probably persuaded everyone he’s going to persuade by now. He can buy all the duct tape from here to Laredo and it still won’t change things. And if it comes to him declaring his emergency powers, then so be it. That will be really popular.
Easy? His life has been easy. Life tends to be that way when you start it with $300 million. But he lived his whole life in a bubble of no consequences. Those days are gone. He owes consequences a very large bill indeed, and on a number of fronts, it’s about to come due.