Democrats Are Blowing a Golden Opportunity

If they’re going to negotiate with the president, they should use their leverage to extract something that aligns with their ideals.

Nancy Pelosi
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Not long ago, the Democrats’ strategy during the government shutdown seemed clear. It consisted of two principles: No negotiations over border funding until the government reopens. And no wall, ever. In his rebuttal to Donald Trump’s nationally televised speech on January 8, Chuck Schumer demanded that Trump “separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security.” Then he declared, “The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall.”

Now Democrats have abandoned principle No. 1. On Wednesday, House Democratic leaders announced that they were sending Trump a letter proposing billions of dollars more for “border security” once Trump reopens the government. So, having said they would not negotiate a border deal while the shutdown continues, Democrats are suggesting the terms of a border deal while the shutdown continues.

But they’re holding fast to principle No. 2. According to The Washington Post, Democrats are even willing to give Trump the $5.7 billion in border funding he’s demanding—just as long as it funds “retrofitting ports of entry, new sensors and drones, more immigration judges and Border Patrol agents, and additional technology.” Anything but a wall.

As public policy, this makes no sense. In her rebuttal to Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rightly accused him of “manufacturing a crisis.” Jerrold Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, has been even clearer: “There is no crisis on the border.” If that’s the case, aren’t the billions Democrats are now proposing to spend on drones and border guards almost as wasteful as Trump’s wall? And if Democrats are okay wasting billions at the border, why not let Trump waste those billions on a wall in exchange for something Democrats truly care about?

Democrats could demand a permanent solution—with a path to citizenship—for the “Dreamers” and those immigrants who enjoy temporary protected status. Trump might reject such a deal, of course. (His own recent proposal offered DACA recipients only a three-year reprieve.) But he’ll likely reject billions in border funding absent a wall, too. If Democrats are going to negotiate during the shutdown, isn’t it morally preferable to push for secure legal status for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable immigrants than for billions in border funding that Democrats all but admit America doesn’t need?

The counterargument is that, politically, the wall is all that matters. If Trump gets his wall—no matter what he gives up in return—he will claim victory. He’ll renew his bond with his political base. Democrats will be demoralized. And whether or not the wall ever gets built, Trump, who today looks politically feeble, will gain momentum heading toward 2020.

But that logic is hardly airtight. Would a deal that gives Trump funding for a wall in exchange for a permanent DACA solution boost him with his base? Not necessarily. When Trump offered far more meager protections for Dreamers last weekend, Ann Coulter and Breitbart slammed him for supporting “amnesty.” Nor is it clear that giving Trump billions in border funding without a wall would damage him as much as Democrats think. Already, Democrats are calling their “border security” proposals a “smart wall.” What if Trump, having cut a deal for $5.7 billion in border funding, claims that the “smart wall” is simply a wall? Democrats appear to believe that, in the current standoff, political perception matters more than public policy. The most important thing is that they appear to win. But Trump and his Fox News flunkies are virtual-reality generators. Who’s to say they won’t claim victory anyway?

A week ago, I thought Pelosi’s no-negotiation strategy—which echoed her hard-line stance against George W. Bush during the Social Security privatization fight—made sense. But now, perhaps because of restlessness among Democratic moderates, her strategy has changed: Democrats are negotiating. They’re offering to give something in order to get something. If that’s the case, shouldn’t they try to get something that actually aligns with their ideals?