Oval Office Opportunity: What Trump Should, and Shouldn't, Say Tonight

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Posted: Jan 08, 2019 2:01 PM
Oval Office Opportunity: What Trump Should, and Shouldn't, Say Tonight

Later this evening, President Trump will speak to the nation in a primetime address from the Oval Office (our Townhall team will cover it as it unfolds on our live blog).  His subject is the ongoing impasse over border security that has triggered a weeks-long partial government shutdown.  Multiple rounds of negotiations have generated virtually no progress, with each side dug in.  Democrats have the upper hand, politically speaking, and they know it.  But the president has a number of powerful policy and process arguments to wield, too.  Tonight represents a rare and important opportunity for him to cut through the noise and nonsense -- to which he too often contributes -- and educate the American people on some facts.  Supporters should hope that last Thursday's surprise briefing room appearance by the president, flanked by senior Border Patrol officials, was an indiction of how Trump will choose to frame the issue tonight; it was the single best piece of disciplined, compelling messaging I've seen from this White House in some time.  If I were advising the president (setting aside my general aversion to shutdown brinksmanship as a tactic), I'd urge him to make the following points in a carefully-crafted and factually-vetted speech:

(1) Emphasize the limited nature of this shutdown, while also acknowledging its real consequences for real people.  Draw attention to the fact that go-to talking points from prior shutdown stand-offs do not apply this time, including paychecks for the troops and Social Security checks.  The overwhelming majority of the federal government is operating and fully funded during this "shutdown," thanks to the previous Republican-controlled Congress' regular-order appropriations process, which was the most wide-reaching and functional in more than 20 years.  He can clearly and succinctly define the discrete scope of this partial shutdown without belittling the real impact it is having on certain federal sectors and workers.  He should recognize and lament those, too, underscoring his desire to end the shutdown as soon as possible.  It may be helpful to acknowledge and adjust some of his own rhetoric, as well.  The tape of him expressing 'pride' in precipitating a shutdown, and his recent musing that the stalemate could last months or years, are not politically helpful.  Democrats are understandably getting a lot of mileage out of those quotes and clips.  Trump needs to make clear that in spite of his bravado and tough negotiating tactics, he is strongly committed to ending this -- but Democrats need to do their part.

(2) Recapitulate several modern-era examples of mainstream Democrats voting for or agreeing to the authorization and funding of significant new barriers along the US border with Mexico.  We've highlighted the 2006 debate in which every single Senate Democrat, including Chuck Schumer, voted in favor of roughly 700 miles of new double fencing along strategically-selected expanses of the border.  Significant new barriers were also included in the 'Gang of Eight' deal of 2013, which garnered the support of all Democratic Senators.  Last but not least, the opposition offered $25 billion in wall funding in exchange for formalizing DACA just last year, a plan that never came to fruition because the liberal base revolted, and the president's reasonable requests for some additional mainstream and erstwhile-bipartisan reforms were rebuffed.  Many voters either do not recall, or never knew, that the Democratic Party has agreed to the construction of these barriers in the recent past.  Trump needs to spell out that history, efficiently and accurately.

(3) Quote border security officials who've attested how, specifically, walls and physical barriers have helped them combat illegal immigration, including the smuggling of drugs, weapons and human beings.  For instance, here is what the president of the National Border Patrol Council said on Thursday during the briefing room statement: 

"I've been a border agent for 21 years. I can personally tell you from the work that I have done on the southwest border that physical barriers that walls actually work. You hear a lot of talk...that there are experts that say that walls don't work. I promise you that if you interview Border Patrol agents they will tell you that they work. I worked in Naco Arizona for 10 years. We didn't have physical barriers in Naco and illegal immigration and drug smuggling was absolutely out of control. We built those walls, those physical barriers. Illegal immigration dropped exponentially anywhere that you look where we have built walls. They have worked." 

Mindless slogans about walls 'never working' or being "immoral" are demonstrably unserious and fatuous.  Showcase the experience-based testimony of respected professionals with skin in the game, which stands in stark contrast with Democratic talking points, which continue to inch closer to a sweeping rejection of enforceable sovereign boundaries.  This is irresponsible and untenable, realities that Trump will seek to underline with a visit to the border on Thursday.

(4) Repeat, over and over again, a desire for compromise, mentioning the various offers the White House has extended to Democrats on this issue over the last few weeks, and even years.  Talk about an openness to any number of factors and ideas that could resolve this fight, so long as real security measures -- including, but not limited to new barriers -- are part of the equation.  You're not going to convince almost anyone that the shutdown is good.  You may convince some independents and persuadables that in light of the history recited in item two, and Trump's unambiguously-stated desire for compromise, the Democrats ought to come to the table for a modest deal.  And according to the Wall Street Journal, Trump is open to a face-saving off-ramp:

During a private meeting with aides at Camp David on Sunday, Mr. Trump said he wanted them to come up with a resolution to the shutdown fight that would reopen the government without him appearing to have capitulated to Democrats, a person familiar with the meeting said.

Democrats could push for total victory, allowing people to get hurt in the process, while doing nothing at all to pursue the border security they profess to care about.  Or they could give Trump something and allow each side to walk away with a small "win."  Trump's climbdown from The Wall to "barriers" that could entail previously agreed-to fencing is a concession unto itself.  It may seem like semantics, but it's actually fairly meaningful.  I'll leave you with two things I hope the president does not do: First, I hope the president does not follow through on this legally-dubious executive "emergency" declaration threat.  Even if it doesn't get blocked by the courts (as is at least somewhat likely), the precedent would be awful.  A president should not try to usurp Congress' powers of the purse by claiming emergency authority in order to shift money around for his or her political priorities.  Conservatives should shudder at the potential applications of such precedent -- especially those conservatives who correctly objected to President Obama's executive abuses on immigration.

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Second, I hope Trump doesn't give away the store by offering a DREAM Act-style resolution on DACA in exchange for relative pennies.  I have long favored a constructive solution on this challenge, and am very sympathetic to the situation in which DACA-eligible young people find themselves.  But such an outcome must be coupled with meaningful enforcement, to help ensure that the fresh amnesty doesn't incentivize another one in the future.  The border is not currently secure, and it would be irresponsible to formally normalize the legal status of an entire class of illegal immigrant without enhancing our ability to prevent new waves from arriving, thus necessitating another inevitable "fix" down the line.  DACA should be taken care of, in conjunction with beefed up security and internal enforcement.  The president's State of the Union offer to Democrats last year was generous and sensible.  So long as Pelosi and Schumer continue to pretend otherwise, nothing of consequence will be accomplished.  One more parting thought: Is tonight's speech (and the border photo-op) really about box-checking, en route to the aforementioned off-ramp Trump privately wants?

UPDATE - Trump may be inclined to go the "emergency powers" route, with the support of some in the GOP, because it would allow the government to reopen, and punt the issue over to the courts.  If the judiciary finds the move to be unconstitutional (and many legal experts believe they would), he'd have fought as far as he could and could blame the judges for thwarting him.  Trump wouldn't have "caved," Republicans could quickly end the partial shutdown, and denunciations of the handy scapegoat would simply remind conservative voters about the importance of the judiciary (even if, in this case, the ruling was constitutionally sound).  A win-win?  Eh, not if a future leftist president cites this Trump gambit as the precedent for a similar power grab in pursuit of some other terrible policy or program, regardless of whether the courts would bless or stop the overreach.  It's just bad governance.  Also, is Trump...writing tonight's speech himself?

UPDATE II - As I mentioned above, there are lots of persuadable Americans who are open to Trump's argument that serious changes need to be made on the issue of border security.  More evidence in this fresh poll: