When a little boy throws a temper tantrum, the last thing you should do is yield to his demands. The next time he screams for a lollipop, your problem will only have grown.
But what if the child is president of the United States? It changes things.
Democrats can’t send Donald Trump to his room for a time out. They can’t force him to end this shutdown. They have to search for a more clever answer.
The path Democrats have chosen would make perfect sense in normal times. They are refusing to yield an inch, giving him nothing for his pointless wall. The polls are moving in their direction, and the hope is that the growing pressure will force Trump to face the fact that he can’t have his lollipop.
“We feel we have a strong hand,” says Rep. Tom Malinowski, a freshman Democrat in the 7th district. “This is not about border security. It’s about how we resolve disputes in Washington. We have an overwhelming interest in not letting the president get his way by shutting down the government. And I think that position will prevail.”
In normal times, it would. But Trump has an advantage in this fight: He’s a heartless scoundrel who doesn’t give a damn about the families of the 800,000 federal workers who can’t pay their rent, or the Native Americans who can’t get health care, or the 38 million people who will soon lose food stamps.
Trump cares about Trump, as we have learned over and over. Why would Democrats think he’s going to change that now?
If you look into the crystal ball, the best guess is that Trump will declare a state of emergency, or plunder disaster aid, to build his wall, and then reopen government and declare victory. Democrats will file suit to block him, but Trump will win something either way.
If he prevails in court, which many experts believe he will, he’ll have his wall. If he loses, he’ll have the issue to inflame his base in 2020.
In a tweet two days after Christmas, Trump seemed to relish that prospect, even as he noted that he lacked the votes in the Senate to win this fight through the normal rules of politics. “They may have the 10 Senate votes, but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!”
Bring it on, say most Democrats.
“He made the mid-terms about fear of immigration, and I don’t think that worked out well for him,” Malinowski says. “I don’t think it’s going to help the president to run the same play that failed in the mid-terms.”
Maybe. But I have two big concerns, one on politics and one on policy.
Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant with wide national experience, notes that the big Democratic gains in the mid-terms came in blue states like California and New Jersey, where Malinowski was one of four Democrats to take Republican seats.
To win a presidential election, Duhaime says, Democrats will need to win swing states like Florida and Ohio, where Republicans made solid gains in 2018.
“It’s an electoral college map,” DuHaime says. “So, it doesn’t matter that Malinowski won. Trump supporters hear border security, get rid of cop killers, get rid of drug dealers. They see Trump as taking a stand against bad guys. Whereas Trump haters see it as a wall that says we hate everyone who is not American. So, it mobilizes both sides.”
Maybe I’m traumatized by the 2016 vote, but that scares me, a little.
The bigger concern, though, is that a crisis like this is also an opportunity, one that Democrats could try to use as leverage to protect the Dreamers from deportation, and scale back the other cruelties, like Trump’s separation of parents and children seeking asylum, and his aggressive deportation of people with no criminal records.
I get it, Trump would probably reject a deal that included funding for his wall, along with a dose of humanity. He rejected an offer like that last year, one that Sen. Robert Menendez helped negotiate. And Vice President Mike Pence rejected that kind of trade just last week.
But Trump changes his mind like a nervous high school kid changes outfits before a prom. The wall is his obsession, his white whale. Any deal that gives him that has a chance.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked Thursday if she’d take a deal like that, one that included funding for the wall. “We have always stood ready to discuss comprehensive immigration reform, and of course, the Dreamers,” she said.
Malinowski, despite his anguish over appeasing a spoiled child, is ready to go along, if the reforms were ambitious enough. Protecting the 800,000 Dreamers facing deportation, he said, would not be enough.
“It’s been raised by one or two people in our very large caucus, and almost unanimously and passionately shot down by everyone,” he said. “A true compromise involves pain for all sides, and relief for the Dreamers is not painful for Donald Trump. He was for it last year, and only stopped because he decided to hold them hostage for the wall.
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“If we were to give him that, it would be the last deal on any immigration issue we’d see for the duration of this administration. The Dreamers don’t even want that.”
I’m rooting for that grand bargain, but I’m not banking on it. More likely, we’ll wind up in precisely this same spot in 2020. Here’s hoping that next time, Trump’s venom doesn’t sell so well in Florida and the Rust Belt.
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Tom Moran may be reached at email@example.com or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.
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