Several news sources used the accurate but uncharitable term “cave” to describe President Donald Trump’s capitulation Friday to the Democrats’ position on the wall and the government shutdown.
It was a clear victory for the Democrats, but House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer were prudently restrained in their celebration. The victory is only a three-week reprieve. There’s no reason to believe that Trump has learned this episode’s most important lesson: A government shutdown is a terrible way to implement policy. In three weeks, the government could be shut down again or, as he threatens, Trump could declare a national emergency.
More than a modest victory lap by Democrats would be counterproductive to the essential goal: finding a solution that will keep the government open after Feb. 15. Where to start? Maybe with a set of questions, all of which have an answer.
For example, just how long would Trump’s wall be? When “Build the Wall” became a red-meat mantra at Trump rallies, it’s clear that many of his supporters envisioned a 2,000-mile, seamless concrete barricade stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific.
Trump encouraged this perception by describing the wall as big and beautiful and, at times, as tall as 65 feet. But I’ve been unable to find any place where Trump himself said the wall needs to be 2,000 miles long.
In fact, as early as 2015, Trump was conceding that 1,000 miles of wall would be sufficient. At present nearly 700 miles of the border have some sort of barrier. The gap between 700 miles and 1,000 miles doesn’t seem — and we are dealing with perception here — nearly as large as the imaginary gap between “no wall” and “all wall,” two positions hardly anyone actually embraces.
The figures above are somewhat misleading. According to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report, the border has only 354 miles of pedestrian barrier; much of the rest is low-lying vehicle obstructions not designed to deter illegal foot traffic. Further, in many places the pedestrian barriers don’t represent much of an obstacle to a determined crosser.
In short, there may be places along the border where Democrats — who have already accepted the need for some pedestrian barriers — might agree that additional barriers could be useful or that existing barriers could be improved.
Other questions could provide more clarity: What’s the comparative cost of a concrete wall versus a steel wall? Which is more durable? Does steel have higher maintenance costs than concrete? What sort of infrastructure — roads, lighting and so on — is required? What provisions can be made to prevent tunneling? Where are the places that a physical barrier would be most effective? What’s the useful life expectancy of a wall?
And most important, how much will Trump’s wall actually cost? The $5.7 billion that he demanded has always been a slippery figure, and lately he’s described it as a down payment for a wall whose total cost depends on the answers to the questions above.
Those questions do have answers, and in a well-run administration they would have been answered long before the original proposal was made.
The situation on the southern border is not a crisis. Real security involves better technology, more Border Patrol agents, more efficient immigration courts and, probably, physical barriers. Better yet, we could ask ourselves if we’ve done enough to help our neighbors to the south improve the conditions that drive people north.
In the meantime, our nation’s legislative branch has less than three weeks to manage a crisis that has been generated by the executive branch. This means managing an erratic, temperamental president who is only just learning the complexities of negotiating in a democracy where power is shared.
Asking the administration to provide specific details about Trump’s “wall” will help focus the negotiations and may enable Democrats and reasonable Republicans to give the president enough to placate his fragile ego. Trump is going to assert that he “won,” no matter how things turn out, which is fine, as long as congress can manage to do the right thing.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.