Trump now has upper hand in border wall debate


The border wall’s shift from legislative impasse to national emergency fundamentally changes the debate. This transformation runs deeper than just the minutiae of legislative process; it goes to the big picture of national politics. The switch changes the stakes and the audience — both to Democrats’ detriment. 

Despite being one of President Trump’s most prominent priorities, for two years border wall funding has been mired by legislative impasse. This unquestionably worked to Democrats’ benefit.  Gridlock’s status quo meant they won: They played to their base, while swing voters lost sight of what was obscured in appropriations arcana. 

Trump tried to change this — upping the stakes and broadening the audience — with history’s longest federal government shutdown. Neither this nor the following three-week negotiation worked. The venue and its gridlock prevailed. And Democrats with it.

With the president’s subsequent national emergency declaration, a transformation occurred. Yes, it certainly encompasses precedent, prerogative and power, but it also affects the playing field the stakes — and most importantly, the audience. 

The playing field’s shift is subtle but significant. To the casual observer, the upcoming congressional votes will look no different: Seemingly replays of the largely party-line stalemates. However, now stalemate favors the president; status quo means he prevails. To stop him, Congress must pass legislation and then overturn his veto. The former is a high bar; the latter is an impossible one. 

The debate itself changes from a mundane one over government dollars to national security. Before dollars obscured national security; now national emergency obscures the dollars. Democrats were on comfortable ground on the former. Their audience was their base — they could not lose. Now because of the heightened issue, the audience is a far broader one — now, they cannot afford to lose. 

A national emergency debate, by raising the stakes, broadens the audience. People who could not be expected to have a real opinion whether $1.4 billion or $5.7 billion was sufficient funding, will have one over a national emergency. 

A debate over a national emergency also favors the president, as an individual, over the multiplicity — and frequent incomprehensibility — of Congress, which here will be divided by party. It is far easier to follow a single voice in a crisis — or even just a debate over one — than a cacophony. 

Most important among the changes though is to the audience and how it will react. This broader audience encompasses Independent voters, those unaligned with either party. They are many and important. 

In 2016, exit polling showed independents were 31 percent of voters and they split 46/42 percent Republican/Democrat. In contrast, Republicans and Democrats went approximately 9-to-1 for their party.  In 2018, independents were 30 percent of voters and broke for Democrats over Republicans. Again the partisans went overwhelmingly for their party. 

The point is independents are roughly one-third of the electorate. They move — or swing — and they do not move as a group. They also do not think as a group — or group-think. 

They will react differently than the partisans too.  Their opinion is not already predetermined and likely to be decided by the outcome. 

The situation is akin to the casual viewers of the Super Bowl. While fans of the two teams playing will have watched every snap all season — their desire who should win and who is the better team was decided before the last game is played. And even after it is over, those opinions will not have changed. 

This is not so for the casual viewers. Their opinions are unformed and the winner to their mind will de facto be the better team — regardless of any controversy that legitimately may have affected the outcome.  The outcome itself will have determined the question. 

For many crucial independent voters, should a wall be built, then a national emergency will have been addressed. They will not question or examine it further. The outcome will have determined the question. 

This puts Democrats into a vastly different and more difficult spot than theirs of the past two years. They are playing for the higher stakes of a national emergency, to a broader and determinative audience, on a field now tilted against them. Where they once could stand pat and not lose the debate about dollars, they cannot afford to let the national emergency argument debate stand. 
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