What Matters More: Wall or Fighting?

I can’t tell which is more important to the president’s base.

The conventional wisdom is that the president needs a wall or else. I’ve presumed the same in the Editorial Board. Then Donald Trump says things suggesting the point isn’t the wall. The point is fighting. Perhaps that illustrates the difference between mindsets. Democratic voters care about accomplishing things. Do GOP voters?

Nancy Pelosi was clear Thursday about her position in the current round of government funding negotiations. “There’s not going to be any wall money in the legislation,” she said. There will be money for personnel, technological upgrades and rehabbing existing fencing. “If the president wants to call that a wall, he can.”

Watch this AP video for more details.

Trump wrote a tweet Thursday that not only undermined the case for a wall but the case for emergency powers. He wrote: “Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee are wasting their time. Democrats, despite all of the evidence, proof and Caravans coming, are not going to give money to build the DESPERATELY needed WALL. I’ve got you covered. Wall is already being built, I don’t expect much help!”

He also undermined any hope of fudging his messaging. He could have lied to supporters by calling “fencing” a wall. Mike Pence said we must "have a physical barrier on our Southern border ... All of the above includes a wall. All of the above includes a physical barrier." Then Trump sabotaged himself: “Let’s just call them WALLS from now on and stop playing political games! A WALL is a WALL!”

Here’s where this leaves us.

The Democrats are not going to budge. They can honor the obligation of providing border security without giving in to Trump. The president, however, has cornered himself, again. He can’t shut down the government, because the Republicans in the Senate will revolt. He can’t call “fencing” or “physical barriers” a wall, because “a WALL is a WALL!” Not even Fox News is that good at lying. So the only thing the president can do, if he wants a wall, is invoke national emergency powers.

That, too, is problematic. The president has said more than once that a wall is already being built. If a wall is already being built, why does he need to get around the Congress? Moreover, the Democrats will jam the president in court. Even if they fail, people who own property on the border will jam him in court. This is what happened to President George W. Bush. There are eminent domain cases still pending.

So he can’t get a wall by shutting down the government. He can’t get a wall by declaring an emergency. He can, however, declare victory by going around the Congress. That will cost him. He’ll weather a flurry of criticism for having gone around the Congress for an emergency that doesn’t exist. The question is one of trade offs. What matters more: what his base thinks or what everyone else thinks? Given his base will love “owning the libs”—constitutional crisis be damned!—I think you know the answer. But that leaves another question: Will “victory” be enough?

That depends on whether the concrete objective in all this is the wall or the fighting. For the life of me, I can’t tell which is more important to the president’s base. On the one hand, people like arch-ghoul Ann Coulter impugned Trump’s manhood after he agreed to reopen the government. That would suggest the president lost some of his hard support. Then again, FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls showed Trump’s approval rating stopped falling after he caved to the Democrats. No more bleeding.

The key might be whether Trump can’t convince supporters his intentions are good. Sure, there’s no wall. Sure, the Democrats beat him. But hey, at least he tried.

The government stays open until Feb. 15.

We’re going to learn a lot after that.

—John Stoehr

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