As the government shutdown meanders on with no clear end in sight, President Donald Trump’s proposals for ending the stalemate have been maddeningly imprecise. He says he wants Congress to earmark $5.7 billion for a wall on the border with Mexico, but the “wall” might just be barriers made of steel slats, and those barriers might just be in “high-priority locations.” (I wrote last month that the nebulous nature of the border-security plan is evident in the way Trump and his administration often use wall as a mass noun, as in Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s plea to Congress: “We need wall.”)
If the $5.7 billion isn’t forthcoming from a divided Congress, what will Trump accept as a compromise? On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement saying that Trump might support a short-term spending bill to reopen the government if it included “a large down payment on the wall.” Later in the day, Trump elaborated on the point, telling reporters, “One of the ideas suggested is they open it, they pay sort of a prorated down payment for the wall, which I think people would agree that you need.”
A “prorated down payment”? It sounds like something out of Trump’s erstwhile world of real estate, as if he’s making a deal with a prospective buyer of a property about how much to pay upfront and how much to finance with a loan. Members of Congress were perplexed by the vague offer. When reporters asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about it, she said, “I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about. Do you?” Likewise, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told CNN, “I don’t know what that means.”
The confusion over a down payment for the wall, whether “large” or “prorated,” is not surprising, given how inappropriate the phrase is for the current political logjam. This is not, after all, a situation in which Congress is looking to put money down with the prospect of someday acquiring a big-ticket item. Since no one even knows what the end result of Trump’s wall talk would actually look like, how could a down payment be made on this foggy vision?
Floating the down-payment idea is perhaps intended to signal to the public that Trump is making a common-sense offer to congressional leaders. It’s the kind of phrasing that politicians have historically used when discussing budgetary matters, as a way of connecting with people by putting things in terms of kitchen-table economics.
Putting “money down” is a homespun expression dating back to the 15th century, rooted in the image of actually laying down cash on a table or counter. It took a more metaphorical turn to describe an initial payment on something, with down payment emerging in American English in the mid-19th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example comes from an 1854 Indiana newspaper advertising parcels of land: “The terms of sale are one-fifth of the purchase money down, and the remainder in six equal yearly payments, allowing a premium of five per cent on all money over the down payment.”
While down payment became common parlance in homeownership, it later turned into a political figure of speech, a kind of rhetorical framing device for making investments of various kinds for the future. The 1968 Democratic Party platform, for instance, listed achievements made under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but then acknowledged, “We view any success as a down payment on the hard tasks that lie ahead.”
In the context of budget wrangling on Capitol Hill, Ronald Reagan first made notable use of the term in his 1984 State of the Union address, in which he called for a bipartisan plan to reduce the deficit, starting with a “down payment” by cutting some spending and closing tax loopholes. Though Democrats criticized the down-payment plan as not a bold enough measure to address the deficit crisis that Reagan’s own policies had precipitated, a bill with bipartisan support did manage to win congressional approval—something that feels like a remote dream in the Trump era.
Since Reagan, the down-payment framing has been used by presidents when presenting visions for long-term prosperity. Bill Clinton spoke of the need to “make a down payment on future economic growth.” George W. Bush signed a spending bill that he said “provides a down payment for the resources our troops need” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama pushed for an economic recovery plan that “makes a down payment on the investments we need to build a strong economy for years to come.”
Trump’s own down-payment talk may draw on this presidential tradition, but it appears to be little more than a fig leaf covering the failure of the shutdown strategy to extract the border-wall funding he has demanded from Congress. If legislators agree on a smaller sum to allocate for border security, including some sort of physical barriers, Trump can at least try to claim that this is a down payment toward the wall he has steadfastly promised his supporters. That would be a modest rhetorical victory, but in the current political climate, it may be the only kind of victory Trump can manage.