Why you should care
Because maybe the wall was in our hearts all along.
Few people in history have understood how to deploy power in Washington better than Mitch McConnell. So when the Senate majority leader told the world on Thursday that President Donald Trump would both sign a government funding bill and declare a national emergency so Trump could cobble together more money to build a wall at America’s Southern border, he did so through gritted teeth. Sure, McConnell said “I’m going to support the national emergency declaration,” but reports indicate that he tried to wave Trump off this idea for months. In the end, McConnell ended up having to “eat a manure sandwich,” as former GOP Rep. Mike Rogers put it to CNN.
Why? McConnell does not consider the wall an “immorality” as many Democrats do. Nor is he terribly concerned about preserving historic norms. He was more than willing to change Senate rules to approve conservative Supreme Court justices without Democratic votes, or refuse to even hold a hearing on President Barack Obama’s final SCOTUS nominee.
The reason so many Republicans are opposed to Trump’s move here is that the wall is small ball. If you’re going to trample on Congress and put political and legal capital on the line for a fight that goes to the Supreme Court, at least make it a battle that’s worth the cost. No one really believes a few more miles of the wall — for which Trump will raid Department of Defense coffers — will do much to halt drug or human traffickers. The spending bill Trump signed to avoid another damaging shutdown, in fact, includes far more money for border security, with high-tech monitoring technologies that would likely provide a much more cost-effective way to secure the 2,000-mile barrier with Mexico.
Trump considers his Game of Thrones solution (Spoiler: It didn’t work in Westeros either) a political imperative — a way of showing the base he’s fighting for tough immigration policy. Even if held up in court, he’s doing everything he can to fulfill a central campaign promise. In a typically entertaining zigzagging Rose Garden appearance on Friday, Trump declared that he didn’t really need the emergency order, but “I just want to get it done much faster.”
So then why not go big? Declare a national emergency to change the asylum rules, or end family reunification (aka “chain migration”), or change the system to favor high-skilled immigrants. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — still in legal limbo nearly seven years later — accomplished a policy goal to remove the threat of deportation for hundreds of thousands of people, in a wild executive overreach of Congress that proved to be an effective election-year play for the Latino vote. But Obama wasn’t fiddling with appropriations accounts.
Republicans’ chief concern right now? That the next Democratic president will use the Trump precedent to declare a national emergency on gun control — there was another mass shooting in Illinois on Friday — or climate change and sidestep Congress to enact the liberal policies she or he wants.
It’s consistent with how some Democratic presidential candidates are signaling an openness to nuking the legislative filibuster — because they know they’re never getting 60 Senate votes for Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. That’s the big stuff Democrats are talking about right now — country-shifting stuff.
Trump’s 2020 campaign, which kicked off with a border-themed rally in El Paso last week, will be based on the idea that the Trump economy is zooming while Democrats want to take away your car and let immigrant criminals run wild. It may well work. But with seemingly no major domestic agenda for the next two years, all the time and effort spent on maybe building a section of wall risks making a larger-than-life presidency look small.
Read more: These Trump Triumphs will outlast the next Democratic president, writes Grover Norquist.