It is a lovely Wednesday afternoon and time for the first Blogger Candidate Forum of the year. We start off 2019 with the saga of the now second longest government shutdown. This is not a typical government shutdown--not that anything related to the Trump administration is typical--because the root cause is over money for a wall along the southern border of the United States. To make his case, Mr. Donald Trump went on television, from the Oval Office, yesterday evening, to advance his argument about border security, without making the wall the main sticking point, which it is. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer gave the rebuttal. It was a very strange moment. Usually a presidential address from the Oval Office is reserved for an extremely important announcement, like the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. The Oval Office yesterday evening was not that kind of speech. Neither was the Democratic rebuttal. Instead both the president, Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer co-opted the Oval to re-state their cases to public. The question before us is what were the takeaways from the speech and what comes next.
First of all, neither side had anything new to say. The president stayed close to the same talking points he has used for past several months (latimes.com; Jan. 8, 2019; date accessed Jan. 9, 2019) none of which really increased public support for the wall. Democrats also stayed close to the arguments they have been making since before the shutdown, almost three weeks ago: "they'll negotiate with Trump after he signs a bill to fund government agencies, but not before" (Ibid).
The result was the speech that is not likely to sway public opinion, which is opposed to the wall, whatever form it takes. Los Angeles Times Washington-based reporter David Lauter writes, "According to most polls, a majority of the public dislikes the government shut down and are more likely to blame Trump and the Republicans for the situation than Democrats" (Ibid). This is why nervous moderate Republicans are breaking ranks with the adminsitration and Democrats remain united. Although, the danger here is that the longer the shutdown goes, the more likely the Democrats will be blamed for dragging out the situation.
Second of all, the television networks' decision to dedicate a portion of prime time to air the speech live drew sharp criticism. The good news is by airing speed and the rebuttal, the millions or so viewers got a chance to hear the pros and cons of a border wall. The bad-ish news is it may not changed many voters but the upside is that public was better informed.
Next, Mr. Trump tried to change his rhetoric, but only partially. In the run up to the Oval Office address, administration painted a dark foreboding picture terrorist threats and spoke of a national security crisis (Ibid). Claims of terrorist threats, gangs and drugs pouring over the border have been mostly debunked (Ibid) and adminsitration officials have been roundly criticized for making false claims. The truth is if you speak to everyday folk in border towns, like McAllen, Texas, they have more daily concerns than inflated statements about gangs, terrorists, and drugs. That is just not their reality. The toned down rhetoric may have been an concession by adminstration officials that past arguments have not served their purpose.
However over the nine minute speech, the president's rhetoric was at odds with itself. At once conveying compassion when he spoke of the perilous journey north, he went on to repeat the assertions that unlawful immigrants in the U.S. have killed or injured American citizens, citing a 2015 case in which an Air Force veteran was raped and killed by an undocumented immigrant (Ibid).
Immigration advocates say that these Isolated cases "unfairly tars all immigrants as criminals" (Ibid). We already know that Mr. Trump has been using this kind of charged language since the early days of his campaign, hardening Democratic attitudes toward him.
Fourth, the wall remains unpopular with Americans. If the question of whether or not a wall is necessary is couched within the broader subject of border security (Ibid), the president's positions do better.
David Lauter reports, "In his speech, Trump talked of the need to increase spending on a broad range of immigration-related items, including more immigration judges,...,although his administration has, in fact, hired more of them" (Ibid). No one is going to argue that there is a back log of immigration cases waiting to be adjudicated. No one is going to argue that there is humanitarian crisis at the border. The humanitarian crisis is not what the president and his adminstration say it is; it is a crisis of housing and caring for women and children--deemed not a threat by the FBI--in a humane and compassionate manner while they await a court date.
Theoretically, widening the border security debate could open space for compromise between opposing sides. That is being optimistic. However, the president has refused to budge from his $5.7 billion demand; so far as to dramatically walk out on a meeting between both parties today. Bottom line, the Democrats do not have an argument with the need for increased border security. The argument they have is over whether a wall is the only option. Spoiler: it is not.
The other roadblock to compromise is the president himself. Specifically, his tendency to agree on a compromise then back off at the last minute (Ibid; Jan. 22, 2018). There is an old saying, "once bitten, twice shy." After experiencing these last minute turn arounds, Democrats or Republicans are hesitant to commit to a deal unless they absolutely, 100 percent, no doubt about it sure that the president will sign off on it. Honestly, the president is losing the shutdown and he knows it. His fatal mistake was going on record saying he would own the shutdown and takes full responsibility for it. He painted himself into a corner and the only way may be accepting a compromise.
Finally, declaring a national emergency is still a viable option. During the nine minute address, Mr. Trump avoided mentioning making any such declaration. Good move on the part of his speech writers. Declaring a national emergency would allow the president to claim authority to use military construction funds to fund the wall. He would most definitely face legal challenges, which he could ultimately lose, but he could sign the bills to reopen the government without going back on his word. Congressional Republicans believe that a national emergency declaration would move the debate over a wall to the courts is their best way out of current stalemate.
What comes next is largely in the hands of the Trump adminstration. The president is quite keen in forcing the Democrats to capitulate into his demands, going as far as to say that he has no problem keeping the government shut down for months or years. He may not have that long. Congressional Democrats remain resolute: a debate on border security instead of blithely allocating $5.7 billion for a wall. Stuck in the middle are the 800,000 federal either furloughed or working without pay. Also in the middle are the men, women, and children in a kind of holding pattern in Mexico or in privately run federal government contracted detention centers. There is no need for this situation. It is obvious that Trump adminstration's policy of deterrence is not working and something else is needed. This is why we need to reopen government and have a real debate on what immigration policy should be.