Democrats sometimes portray themselves as high-minded and naive—unwilling to play as rough as the GOP. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is, once again, proving that self-image wrong. She’s not only refusing Donald Trump’s demand for a border wall. She’s trying to cripple his presidency. And she may well succeed.
Pelosi’s strategy resembles the one she employed to debilitate another Republican president: George W. Bush. Bush returned to Washington after his 2004 reelection victory determined to partially privatize Social Security. “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital,” he told the press, “and I intend to spend it.” Bush’s plan contained two main elements. The first was convincing the public that there was a crisis. Social Security, he declared in his 2005 State of the Union address, “is headed toward bankruptcy.” The second was persuading Democrats to offer their own proposals for changing it.
As the journalist Matthew Yglesias pointed out not long ago, a fallacy underlay Bush’s argument. Even if you believed Social Security was going bankrupt, diverting some of the tax money that funds it into private accounts wouldn’t solve the problem. It would make the problem worse. To mask that glitch, Bush needed to lure Democrats into offering proposals that actually shored up Social Security’s finances—by cutting benefits, raising taxes, or cutting other spending—but were highly unpopular. Americans would presumably prefer Bush’s cotton candy to the Democrats’ broccoli, and thus empower Bush to fulfill the decades-old conservative goal of ending Social Security as a program of social insurance.
Aiding Bush’s effort was the fact that prominent Democrats had proposed tinkering with Social Security in the past. In his State of the Union address, Bush observed, “During the 1990s, my predecessor, President Clinton, spoke of increasing the retirement age. Former [Democratic] Senator John Breaux suggested discouraging early collection of Social Security benefits. The late [Democratic] Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended changing the way benefits are calculated.” Bill Clinton and Joe Lieberman had even toyed with private accounts.
But Pelosi, then House minority leader, wouldn’t take the bait. She denied that Social Security was in crisis. And she refused to offer a plan for changing it. When a member of Congress asked when Democrats would offer their own proposals, she replied, “Never. Is never good enough for you?”
Republicans called Democrats hypocrites for spurning proposals they had once supported. And centrist pundits, while admitting the problems with Bush’s proposal, criticized Democrats for not countering it. In a February 2005 editorial, The Washington Post slammed Democrats for their “silence about alternatives.” In a June editorial titled “Where Are the Democrats?” the Post acknowledged, “No doubt Democrats’ political instincts will be against engaging at this point: Why bail out Mr. Bush now, the strategists will argue, and let him claim that he led the way to putting Social Security on the path to solvency? … But there is also the little matter of what’s right for the country.”
Still, Pelosi, understanding that policy and politics are inseparable, did nothing. Irrespective of the merits of tweaking Social Security, she realized that offering Democratic proposals would divide her caucus and give Bush a political lifeline. Instead, she forced Americans to choose between Social Security as it was and Social Security privatization, maneuvering Bush into a battle that crippled his second term and laid the foundation for Democrats to retake the House in 2006. “The first thing we had to do in 2005 was take the president’s numbers down. Bush was 57 percent in early 2005,” Pelosi recently remarked to The New York Times’ Robert Draper. “His numbers came down to 38 in the fall, and that’s when the retirements [of congressional Republicans] started to happen.”
Pelosi is up to something similar today. Just as Republicans in 2005 reminded Democrats that they once supported altering Social Security, Republicans today keep reminding Democrats that they once supported a border wall. In his Oval Office address last week, Trump observed that “Senator Chuck Schumer … has repeatedly supported a physical barrier in the past, along with many other Democrats.” The former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen titled a recent column “Democrats Were for a Wall Before They Were Against It.”
As in 2005, high-minded centrists are urging Pelosi and the Democrats to compromise. “Rather than talk about the immorality of a wall,” The Washington Post recently urged, “Democrats could use their leverage to achieve a truly moral purpose. In return for a few billion dollars for a segment of the president’s wall … Democrats might permanently shield from deportation well over 1 million ‘dreamers.’” A recent Bloomberg editorial scolded Democrats for wanting “to deny the other [side] anything that might be portrayed as a victory,” and warned that “the only alternative to compromise, now that power in Washington is more equally divided, is paralysis.”
But Pelosi knows that the alternative to Democratic compromise isn’t necessarily paralysis. It may be Democratic triumph. Trump, like Bush, has picked a fight that is popular with conservatives but unpopular with the public at large. Most Americans don’t think there’s a border crisis, don’t support a border wall, and blame Trump for the shutdown. As a result, Republican members of Congress are under more political pressure to back down than their Democratic counterparts, and the longer the shutdown continues, the more that pressure should grow. For the time being, at least, conservative opposition has forced Trump to shelve talk of declaring a national emergency. All of which means that the most likely outcome to the current standoff is that Trump caves. And since the wall was Trump’s signature campaign promise, such a retreat could depress conservative enthusiasm and impair his chances in 2020. “If he gives in,” Lindsey Graham recently warned, “that’s probably the end of his presidency.”
That’s what Pelosi is aiming for. In pure policy terms, there’s a case for compromise. Arguably, it’s worth wasting a few billion dollars on a border wall to safeguard the “Dreamers” who are stuck in an agonizing legal limbo. But Pelosi is focused on something bigger: the emasculation of the president. For years, Democrats have wondered when their leaders would start playing tough. Turns out Pelosi has been doing so all along.