February 3, 2024

Trump and the Border

House Republicans have successfully engineered a legislative crisis by refusing to authorize aid for Israel and Ukraine without also including what some would consider draconian changes to how we deal with migrants on our southern border. Pressed for action by big-city Democratic mayors dealing with busloads of migrants, the Biden administration has acknowledged that the crisis on our border is real and has indicated its willingness to employ tools devised by Congress to address it. Senate Democrats and Republicans are putting final touches on legislation that would provide aid for Israel and Ukraine combined with immigration reforms.

Just when the legislative logjam seemed about to be resolved, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has declared that Republicans should not sign on to the Senate bill. Apparently, Trump wants to ensure that he can use the border crisis as a campaign issue in the coming 2024 presential race. House Speaker Mike Johnson seems willing to do Trump’s bidding by not allowing the House to take up the Senate bill. Of course, at this point, no one, presumably including Trump himself, knows what is in that bill, which is still being written.

Trump is making a big mistake. That is understandable, since we know that Trump is not a deep thinker about policy issues. If he prevents legislation from being passed on foreign aid and border reform, his argument that only he can solve border problems will be countered by the Democratic argument that Trump is the person who torpedoed effective immigration reform that Congress has been unable to pass for decades. He will also be blamed for failing to support Israel and, heaven forbid, allowing Russia to defeat Ukraine. One can imagine major elements of the electorate that will resonate to the Democratic anti-Trump argument.

Trump is actually taking a page from the Richard Nixon playbook. Candidate Nixon worked to head off a resolution of the Vietnam war, so that he could preserve it as a campaign issue. The difference between Nixon and Trump, however, is that Nixon pursued his nefarious scheme in secret, whereas Trump’s self-serving machinations are being exposed for all the world to see. Trump has missed the subtlety here.

What should Trump do? How can he salvage a situation threatening to turn what he thinks will be a powerful campaign issue into an even more powerful campaign issue for Biden, Harris, and other Democratic candidates? Trump should emphasize the seriousness of the border crisis. He should assert that he dealt with it better when he was in office and that his focus on the border has been responsible for finally motivating both the current administration and Congress to act. He can, though probably won’t, portray himself as a powerful, positive force in governance rather than a negative one derailing reforms he ostensively supports.

The best outcome, of course, would be if Johnson is pressured to bring the Senate bill to the floor and passage resolves the current impasse. House Republicans are in a bind, however, as long as Trump persists in his opposition. Defying Trump’s wishes will clearly be a blow to the Trump campaign and likely one to the campaigns of Republican House candidates as well. Failure to pass a bill may be equally damaging.

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