Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President Donald Trump has kept a lot of promises in his first term so far; among them are tax cuts, regulatory reform, restoration of military funding, the nominations of conservative judges and their confirmations. While we are living in something of a post-policy environment, where attitude often matters more than ideas, it is still more advantageous than not to run for re-election as a “promises made, promises kept” incumbent.
But a signature promise Trump made in 2016 – building a wall on our southern border – remains glaringly unfulfilled. While Republicans accomplished much in Trump’s first two years with unified control of the White House and Congress, it is a tragedy that an immigration deal was not struck to deliver the President his wall, the Dreamers their solution, and multiple sectors of American business a steady, legal labor supply for agriculture, construction and the service industry.
Which brings us to the President’s meeting Tuesday with “Chuck and Nancy” (as Trump calls them) in which Trump pledged to shoulder the full public responsibility for a government shutdown if Democrats don’t cave and fund the wall.
“I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security,” Trump flatly said as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi grinned. For Schumer, any outcome where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t beating him up and taking his lunch money in the Senate cafeteria is a relief, because that’s what happened during the last shutdown.
For Trump, owning a shutdown will not be popular generally but will certainly spark cries of “atta boy” among his base of supporters who love it when he upends Washington. While people will tell pollsters they don’t like government shutdowns, shouldering the blame for this one, two years out from re-election, will be a distant memory when folks vote in 2020. If you are going to own one of these things, better to do it as far out from the election as possible.
A benefit to Trump’s obstinance is this: It shines a light on his fight for border security, in contrast with what his supporters see as Democratic weakness on the issue. Not everyone will see it the President’s way, of course, but those tracking Trump’s promise keeping will admire his attempts to keep this one.
The President is unlikely to get wall funding (at least in the way he described it in 2016) out of Democratic leadership, and thus must prepare a new strategy and explanation. He could, perhaps, strike a deal with Democrats on what he might call a “wall-plus,” which would be a mixture of wall-like barriers, technology and human assets to enhance border security.
Trump can even pin a pivot like that on his excellent Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who testified this week before Congress, according to The Washington Post, that “additional barriers would be an ‘important tool’ to stop illegal crossings … (and) urged senators to support investments in ‘the entire immigration continuum’… better technology and additional agents as well.” Trump taking advice from the experts here to inform his willingness to deal would be well-received inside and outside of Washington.
While a shutdown strategy probably doesn’t hurt the President long term, he can turn lemons into lemonade by achieving a compromise that would satisfy the experts while simultaneously showing his people he hasn’t given up on the animating promise of his first campaign.