On Tuesday night, President Trump will deliver a prime-time address to the nation “on the Humanitarian and National Security crisis on our Southern border.” It will be his first big address from the Oval Office, a signal that the president recognizes, at least on this issue, that to succeed he must reach beyond his base to rally the American people. He further promises to travel to the border Thursday to “meet with those on the front lines.”
The Oval Office speech and trip to the border suggest the stakes are rising as the government shutdown is now in its third week. In the received Beltway wisdom, the trick for shutdowns is to pin blame on your opponents, in the way that then-Speaker Newt Gingrich was blamed for the 1995 shutdown by Bill Clinton, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took the hit for the quickly aborted shutdown early last year. Because Mr. Trump took full responsibility for this shutdown even before it started, the thinking goes, he is fated to lose.
But is he?
Unless he offers something new in his speech, Mr. Trump’s position has been clear and categorical: He won’t sign a deal that doesn’t include $5 billion for a wall. If that means the shutdown continues for “months or even years,” so be it.
The Democratic speaker of the House is likewise absolute. “We’re not doing a wall,” Nancy Pelosi says. “Does anybody have any doubt about that?”
Which leaves the Beltway in a game of chicken. Perhaps Mr. Trump will jump off the track first, especially if Republicans in Congress begin to abandon him. It’s possible there will be a game-changing concession in his speech, but Mrs. Pelosi has said there’s nothing he could give Democrats that would change their position. In the meantime, three factors may encourage Mr. Trump told hold his hard line.
The first is his pain tolerance. Many a political stance has buckled when people started seeing human faces on the consequences of some tough policy. But on trade, where tariffs have proved painful to some businesses and industries, Mr. Trump has demonstrated he’s willing to endure the costs his stands can impose on innocent third parties.
Second, border politics have shifted. A few months ago, the dominant news and images were children separated from families, children sleeping in cages, and so on. The political dynamic has now flipped, mostly as a result of the organized and lawless effort to bum-rush the border, better known as the caravan.
More recently, the Border Patrol fired tear gas into Tijuana, Mexico, on New Year’s Eve after people trying to cross illegally threw rocks at agents. Just before that came the murder of a California police officer—a young father and legal immigrant from Fiji—allegedly at the hands of a gang-affiliated illegal alien from Mexico during a drunken-driving stop.
Mr. Schumer says a wall isn’t necessary for border security, and he has an argument there. But the arguments Democrats make aren’t about security. Instead, they talk about sanctuary cities and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Democratic indulgence of these causes has helped Mr. Trump make the case that the only choice before America today is between his wall or no border security at all.
The third and biggest incentive for the president to dig in is this: He has more to lose than the Democrats do. This shutdown was neither necessary nor inevitable. In the testy Oval Office meeting in December with Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Pelosi, it was the president who delivered the ultimatum: Fund the wall, he demanded, or he’d be “proud to shut down the government for border security.”
In “The War of the Roses”—a dark comedy about an epic marital breakup between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner—divorce attorney Danny DeVito famously warns, “There is no winning. Only degrees of losing.” On the shutdown, most of the pundit class appears to agree.
But Washington knows degree makes all the difference in politics. If Mrs. Pelosi is forced to give Mr. Trump enough wall money for him to claim victory, she would take some nasty hits from her caucus—but she could also argue that she behaved as the adult in the room and the press would support her. And if she could in return wrangle legalization of the Dreamers, people brought here illegally as children, she could claim, rightly, that she had delivered on a key priority that has thus far eluded Democrats.
The possibilities of anything but outright victory are more stark for Mr. Trump. Oh, sure, if he accepts a deal that doesn’t give him a wall he can blame Democrats along with any Republicans who abandon him. But he still would have lost a fight that he picked. He’d end the shutdown weaker than he started. And some of his most ardent supporters could well turn on him for selling them out on his signature issue, affecting his re-election in 2020.
None of this guarantees a Trump victory. It does suggest the president realizes he is now in a fight he can’t afford to lose.
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