Why Trump's immigration compromise is a shrewd move
For the past month, Democrats have insisted they will not negotiate with President Trump while the government remains in partial shutdown. The president has spent most of that time insisting he will not negotiate on his demand for $5.7 billion in funding for the border wall. As a result, the shutdown broke the previous service-gap record without so much as a vote on alternatives.
This week, however, the logjam may be slowly unwinding, and Trump might be able to take credit for ending the stalemate.
It began with a surprising concession from the man who wrote The Art of the Deal and who warned against making the first move in a negotiation. "The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal," Trump wrote at the time, "is seem desperate to make it." Any show of needing the deal more than one's opponents necessarily surrenders leverage, Trump explained in his book.
Nevertheless, Trump on Saturday offered the first concession since the shutdown started: a three-year extension to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and similar extensions to Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations to certain classes of refugees.
The Senate bill introduced to codify this deal had a number of problems, but Trump's concessions were significant. This was the first shift in the standoff and the terms on which it is being fought. It was also the first time the White House had linked DACA to the border wall in this budget go-around, although it had offered to link them in the previous shutdown a year earlier. A three-year extension to the DACA program would protect recipients until at least 2022.
That offer comes close to giving away the whole store for Republicans, in exchange for only a portion of the wall Trump promised to build. If Trump wins re-election and the courts don't dispense with DACA as an unconstitutional construct, he will regain some leverage in a second term to build more border barriers. If he fails to win re-election, though, this deal would mean that DACA would be safeguarded interminably. The same applies to the TPS groups, the status of which the Trump administration had already announced would be revoked in the coming year.
Why make the first move? Easy: Trump needs to come out of this with a win, even if it means having to roll back some of his leverage. Trump made the border wall the centerpiece of his campaign, the rallying point for millions of voters who thought he'd be the only person who can actually get key goals accomplished in Washington on sheer force of personality. A failure to make good on this core promise would undermine his presidency and any hope of winning the next election. "If you don't deliver the goods," he also wrote in his book, "people will eventually catch on."
Clearly, Trump wants to deliver the goods, and he's willing to part with some leverage to do so. By making the first move, Trump also created an opening for a response to his proposal, which raised expectations of a revised negotiating position from Democrats, especially with the potential for a key agenda victory on DACA. Trump traded a little leverage for a little more public pressure, in effect.
At first, Democrats failed to recognize that trap. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted she would not negotiate at all while the government is shut down, a position she undercut by also insisting she wouldn't negotiate on border-wall funding at all, shutdown or no shutdown. Pelosi tried holding the line by warning her caucus against "freelancing" on the standoff and sending signals of disunity. Pelosi even went so far as to formally reject Trump's plan to deliver the State of the Union address in a joint session of Congress next week.
But by that time, other members of Democratic leadership had already started "freelancing" and exposing cracks in Pelosi's no-talks armor. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), when asked by Fox's Neil Cavuto whether he would vote for border-wall funding, conceded that "physical barriers are part of the solution." A week earlier, Hoyer had insisted he would oppose such funding. The next day, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) offered to give Trump the $5.7 billion he requested for more border security as long as it wasn't spent on the wall. "If his $5.7 billion is about border security," Clyburn remarked, "then we see ourselves fulfilling that request, only doing it with what I like to call using a smart wall."
For a party that insisted it wouldn't negotiate during a shutdown, those sound an awful lot like negotiations. But in light of Trump's substantial concession on Saturday, Democrats have little choice but to update their position. Pelosi and her lieutenants are also facing a potential uprising among centrists in their caucus to allow for a border-wall funding vote in order to end the shutdown. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have agreed to hold votes on the current negotiating positions of both sides, with the certainty that both bills will fail. When they do fail, the result will likely be talks to find ways to bridge the gap between the trenches dug over the past month.
If that happens, Pelosi could well find herself on the outside looking in on a shutdown deal. While she stands firm, negotiations are taking place, and there's a good chance she'll soon be standing alone. Trump can rightly take credit for the progress, and unless Pelosi provides a substantive response, her own caucus might freelance a compromise and call her status as leader into serious question. It may well be time for Pelosi to claim victory on DACA and depart the field, before her own party decides to force her to depart it.