Are Democrats getting wobbly on the government shutdown? Some in the media certainly want the public to think so.
On Tuesday, Politico published a piece claiming that a "group of centrist House Democrats" is pressuring Speaker Nancy Pelosi "to counter Trump’s immigration proposal with her own potential compromise." The article shared an unsigned letter telling Pelosi that while "this shutdown was not caused by the 116th Congress," it is still "our job to fix it".
Democrats in some districts, according to this report, are feeling the "pressure they are under to end the shutdown" and are "starting to question" Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's refusal to give in to Donald Trump's blackmail attempt. As you may have heard, Trump engineered an avoidable government shutdown in an effort to strong-arm Democrats into funding a border wall.
It's probably true that some Democrats are getting itchy, though it's worth noting that this letter has no actual signatures yet. Mainstream media coverage of the shutdown, predictably enough, has settled into a misleading "both sides are to blame" narrative that portrays this shutdown as a result of intransigence on the part of both Trump and Democratic leaders. Some members of Congress will inevitably feel the heat from that narrative.
But if any Democrats are feeling the urge to give into blackmail, they should not. Nor should Pelosi or Schumer pay any mind to any members of their caucus who are starting to talk about paying Trump's ransom.
As painful as it is to accept, the only way this shutdown can end is for Trump and his masters at Fox News to realize that the political cost of the shutdown is too high and to give up the fight. All other paths are doomed to fail or, worse, will lead to even more disastrous hostage-taking down the road. Even in the face of economic disaster, Democrats need to maintain their position, which is that no debate about border security can even begin until Trump reopens the government.
There are three reasons that Democrats cannot and should not strike a deal with Trump on the border wall without him first agreeing to reopen the government.
First, giving in to this presidential blackmail means that Trump will surely return to this well again and again, using the threat of economic collapse to extract concessions from Democrats. Giving in now means that the next two years will be a series of increasingly awful disasters as Trump repeatedly shuts down the government or even defaults on the country's debt. It's a lesson found in every gangster movie: Once Democrats give into extortion, they'll never have to stop paying it.
Secondly, Trump has no real political leverage here, no matter what the centrist talking heads and hand-wringers might say. Despite misleading "both sides" coverage, the public knows this is all Trump's fault. A new Morning Consult poll shows that Trump's disapproval rating is at an all-time high, at 57 percent, and that the same proportion of Americans believe Trump is likely being blackmailed by the Russian government. Giving into him now would be politically foolish.
Perhaps most important, even if Democrats were opening to striking a deal on the border wall, there's no reason to think Trump is capable of making such a deal with them. Despite decades of Trump's bragging about his supposed deal-making prowess, his behavior in office shows that he doesn't even understand what deals are and how they work. So any deal Democrats strike with Trump to reopen the government is likely to collapse, putting them back at square one -- if not in a worse position than before.
To be clear, many mainstream journalists fail to understand that Trump is simply not capable of striking a meaningful deal. On Wednesday morning, Axios floated an item claiming that a "new immigration idea has been circulating over the past 24 hours at senior levels inside the White House," that being to offer green cards to DACA recipients in exchange for border wall funding. This follows other claims being floated by the White House that they're interested in some other form of protection for DACA recipients and other immigrant groups in exchange for the border wall money.
There's considerable pressure from mainstream media pundits on Democrats to take this "deal" or offer another of their own. Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight, for instance, tweeted over the weekend that "Pelosi should offer to fully fund the border wall in exchange for passage of HR 1, the Democrats' giant voting rights/campaign finance/anti-corruption bill."
This kind of argument sounds reasonable, at first. After all, that's how deal-making in politics usually works, as tradeoffs between two parties where everybody gives something up in order to get at least part of what they want.
But journalists who make these arguments are deluding themselves. The problem is that Trump is simply not capable of making such a deal. Trying to strike a deal with him, especially on this issue, is like juggling with Jell-O.
Let's say Pelosi and Schumer do take another White House meeting and strike a deal with Trump to fund the border wall in exchange for something they want, whether it's the anti-corruption bill or green cards for DACA recipients or even Medicare for All.
What would happen is obvious to everyone: As soon as they all shake hands and leave the room, Trump would renege on his half of the bargain and the deal would be scuttled.
We know this because it's exactly what has happened before. Last year, Democrats struck a deal with Trump where they would exchange $20 billion in border wall funding for protections for DACA recipients. But Trump backed out completely after being criticized by immigration hard-liners, particularly those on TV like Ann Coulter, whose approval he craves desperately.
As Matt Yglesias at Vox pointed out earlier this month, the reason that Trump can't trade anything valuable for the border wall is that the border wall will do absolutely nothing to prevent undocumented immigration (or drugs or crime). Most immigrants enter the country at legal ports of entry and overstay their visas; most illegal drugs enter the country in similar fashion, largely in commercial vehicles. The only value the wall has is that Donald Trump has staked his ego on it.
If immigration hard-liners "really wanted a wall, they would go get a wall by offering something," as Yglesias puts it. "But since they know the wall is a bad idea, they won’t trade it for anything."
Anti-immigration zealots like White House adviser Stephen Miller do have a coherent and consistent goal, which is to make America as white as possible by sharply restricting immigration and kicking out many of the immigrants who already live here. A wall does nothing to accomplish that goal, and they know it. Its value to the racist, right-wing base is purely symbolic. Giving green cards to DACA recipients, on the other hand, would be a meaningful policy that runs counter to the white nationalist goals of Miller and pundits like Coulter, meaning they will never permit any such deal.
The border wall is a classic white elephant problem. In essence, Trump wants Democrats to give him this useless but expensive thing, and needs Republicans to pay a price for it — whether that price is DACA green cards or HR 1 or something else of value that Republicans don't want to give up. And while Republicans would be happy to let him have his white elephant, they aren't going to surrender anything they value to get it.
That's why the entire mainstream media's framing -- Trump versus Democrats in an alleged "stalemate" -- is a misreading of the situation. Ultimately, the problem here is that Donald Trump does not even understand what deals are or how to make them. He can't even strike a deal with his own allies.
Democrats cannot make a deal with an adversary who doesn't understand how to make deals. It's a logical impossibility. The only solution is to hold fast and let Trump destroy himself with his own incompetence.