Mark my words: The president is going to fry. As the government shutdown goes into its second month, and 800,000 federal workers continue to feel the squeeze of functional unemployment, Speaker of The House Nancy Pelosi has Trump right where she wants him.
By refusing to support the White House’s proposal — border wall funding in exchange for reopening the government (political terrorism essentially, with government employees playing the role of hostages) — she is placing the president in an impossible position. He can stick to his guns, and let the public see the vast devastation that will come to the men, women and children reliant on government jobs. Coast guards, TSA agents, Border Patrol workers, and other key individuals will be forced to choose between rent or food, medicine or transportation, and in the process risk losing their homes, apartments and worse.
Those images, of innocent, industrious folks being put through the wringer in order to promote an unpopular policy will surely drive the president’s poll numbers in the toilet. A majority of Americans don’t want the wall, according to surveys, but they do believe in time-honored ideals like fairness and getting paid for a hard day’s work. Trump’s violation of them will be one of the most craven, amoral acts of political theater in recent memory.
Or: The president can decide to do a deal with the Democrats, something like trading wall funding for legislation on DACA, which has been discussed by congressional Republicans. The problem with this approach is simple: If pursued, his base will revolt. In order to get enough Democrats to sign on for such a plan, Trump would need to offer a major concession, such as a path to citizenship for the dreamers.
That would not be amenable to many on the right wing, who were deeply attracted to his hard-line opposition to such policies. The president’s recent support for a three-year extension of the DACA program in exchange for some wall funding — a very modest idea, for sure — was even rejected by conservatives.
Upon hearing of this new proposal, famed GOP columnist Ann Coulter wrote: “100 miles of border wall in exchange for amnestying millions of illegals. So if we grant citizenship to a BILLION foreigners, maybe we can finally get a full border wall.”
Which leaves him only one other option: declaring a national emergency on immigration, which according to legal scholars, would give him authority to build the wall even though it has not been authorized by Congress.
However, this approach has sent shivers down the spines of prominent conservatives, who worry about the precedent it would set. As Fox News commentator Erick Erickson said, “If the president declares a national emergency and starts using eminent domain and reprogrammed dollars to build a wall, it is only a matter of time before a progressive president declares climate change a national emergency and uses eminent domain to shutter coal plants, etc.”
At the end of the day, Republicans, while admirers of Trump, still love their time-honored principles such as limited government and strict restrictions on executive authority. Unilaterally building the wall without the approval of Congress would be a bridge too far for many of them, and make Trump seem like the dictatorial autocrat they incorrectly claimed President Obama was.
There is no good scenario here for the right. Trump has taken ownership of a shutdown that, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll, 51 percent of the public blames him for (by comparison, a third of respondents placed blame on the Democrats). Every option before him leads to a bad outcome.
And all political watchers can do is marvel at the genius of the House speaker. In her first month on the job, she already has her archrival in the hot seat, one that gets ever warmer by the second.
It is quite clear that Ms. Pelosi is the sort of Democrat conservatives despise the most: She fights the way they do, in an uncompromising, no-holds-barred fashion. Her values, rather than being up for negotiation, are sacrosanct; the ultimate goal is not milquetoast bipartisanship but the destruction of her ideological foes.
In 2006, she achieved a Democratic takeover of Congress with similar tough-mindedness, by refusing to negotiate with the Bush White House on their proposal to privatize Social Security, and instead let the country see the stark difference between liberal and conservative values. If Pelosi keeps up the same tactics with Trump, it is likely she will deal a hammer blow to his government as well.
The right knows how powerful this brand of politics is; they’ve been using the same playbook for decades. It’s the stuff revolutions are made of and one can only hope that the speaker continues to righteously fight on.
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Democratic Voices runs every Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several local Democrats.