The Return of Karl Rove.
Or is it? Today, by a voice vote, the Senate passed legislation that was identical to legislation they passed more than a month ago. In a sense, nothing has changed, but it may be that everything has changed.
For weeks now, Republicans in Congress — notably Mitch McConnell — remained in their bunker and declined to play a material role in ending the government shutdown, as it devolved into a battle of wills between Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Instead, Republican senators who ventured into the fray had little to offer beyond pleading with Democrats to come around and give the President what he wants.
Speaking on CNN midway through the month-long shutdown, a visibly angry Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson lambasted Democrats for not giving Trump his money. Johnson argued that building the wall was central to Trump’s campaign, that he won, and that therefore the Democrats had an obligation to give him his money. No one on the show bothered to point out that campaign pledges are rarely, if ever, binding on the opposition party. Barack Obama learned as much when his signature initiative — the Affordable Care Act — failed to win a single GOP vote in either house of Congress.
In a similar vein, last week, Georgia Republican Senator David Perdue pushed the notion that the onus was on the Democrats to cough up the money, because, he argued, if Trump agreed to reopen government, he would “lose his leverage” to get what he wants. “Right now,” Perdue explained, “what the Democrats are saying is, ‘Well look, give us what we want and maybe we’ll come back in two or three months and talk about what you want.’ That’s not the way negotiations work in the real world.”
Perhaps that is the way negotiations work in the business world where Perdue and Trump toiled before they came to Washington, but it is not actually how the Constitution works. In the world where Trump and Perdue now live, the separation of powers established in the Constitution means that presidents have to work with Congress to get what they want. Presidents can wheel and deal, they can cajole and bully, and they can go over the head of Congress and take their case to the people. They can even lie to the public about what’s at stake in an effort to get their way, but at the end of the day, if they want money, they have to get the votes in Congress.
Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan both understood this. They knew that Trump wanted money for his wall and that it had been central to his campaign, yet for two years, they declined to even bring it up for a vote. A number of conservatives opposed the wall on the basis of cost, while many mainstream Republicans — including most of those from border states — shared the view of Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd, whose district includes the longest stretch of the U.S. border with Mexico. Hurd has been outspoken in suggesting that a wall along the lines that the President has been demanding represents the most expensive and least effective form of border security. Hurd has advocated instead for investments in border security technology, as well as increased funding for the Coast Guard, which now is only able to respond to 25% of the actionable intelligence it receives on maritime drug smuggling operations.
While Republicans have fallen in line behind Trump on most issues over the past two years, when it comes to the border, they simply haven’t bought into his argument that it constituted a national security crisis. As much as Trump might pound the table on the issue, data from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Homeland Security data suggest that illegal crossings have declined by more than 90% from the real crisis years a decade or more ago, and that the proposed wall would have little impact on drugs entering the country. Ironically, the closest Congress came to funding Trump’s wall was in the form of a bi-partisan deal last February that would have given him $25 billion for his wall in exchange for a DACA fix, but Trump walked away from that deal at the last minute after objections from conservatives.
The unwillingness of Democrats to give Trump a far smaller amount of money this time around goes beyond the niceties of upholding constitutional principles regarding the separation of powers or the bi-partisan view that the proposed wall would be an expensive and ineffective use of funds. Rather, it is the recognition that if Trump is successful in using the leverage of a governmental shutdown to achieve his political purposes in this instance, it will fundamentally alter the balance of power in the nation’s capital. At last week’s March for Life in Washington, DC, Trump supporters on the religious right were enraptured by Trump’s willingness to shut down the government and stick it to the Democrats. Lost as the media focused on the Coventry Catholic teenagers were suggestions from right-to-life activists that Trump should follow up on his shutdown of the government over the border wall with a shutdown to force an end to federal funding of Planned Parenthood. While liberal commentators often chastise Congressional Republicans for their fear of Donald Trump’s tweets, one can only imagine the shudder of horror felt by Democratic leaders at the thought of the tweets yet to come demanding an end to Planned Parenthood funding, or some similarly contentious concession, as the price of ending a future government shutdown. If Trump were to succeed in his current wall funding strategy, this might well be an irresistible next step.
What remains puzzling in all of this is how Trump allowed himself to be backed into a corner in the first place, cowed as he appears to have been by right-wing pundit and instigator Ann Coulter. Unlike conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, who have been defining political correctness on the right for decades, Coulter is more gadfly than conservative heavyweight, and has no legions of daily listeners who hang on her every word. Instead, she is a prolific author in an era when reading books has waned, whose life is a non-stop book tour as she seeks to stay in the public eye.
For Coulter, the media attention over the past month has been a gift of unimaginable proportions. Each time journalists and pundits jump on a comment she makes while a guest on some show — as they did last week when she pronounced that Trump will be “dead, dead, dead” if he fails to win money for his wall — she can hear the cha-ching of book sales and speaking fees. No one misread Coulter’s motives more than San Francisco Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who begged Coulter to give Trump the OK to open up the government. Far from wanting it to end, Coulter is living the dream; after years of traveling the country, flogging her wares, the government shutdown has finally elevated her to the pinnacle of conservative punditry.
The odd part is why Trump sat passively by as Coulter accused him of “scamming” his supporters, and railed away about “the millions of illegals pouring into our country every year.” Famous as a political counterpuncher who hits back “ten times harder” against those who attack him, Trump could have easily rebuffed her claims. Far from scamming his followers, he has diligently delivered what he promised in his campaign rallies — from tax cuts to judges to guns to undermining the ACA to confronting China on trade — and even as Republicans declined to fund his wall, he has taken harsh stances on both legal and illegal immigration. In the wake of Coulter’s comments, Trump could have responded not just that her numbers are flat out wrong, but that on his watch, not only have illegal border crossings reached the lowest levels in nearly half a century, but with more undocumented immigrants leaving the country than coming in, net migration is now negative.
Perhaps Trump was wary to take on Ann Coulter because she is a woman. Or perhaps he believed that to suggest that the immigration “crisis” is abating would undercut the visceral bond Trump has nurtured with his followers. But for whatever reason, even as he spoke from the Rose Garden announcing the agreement to allow the government to reopen, he quickly veered off of his prepared text and once again amped up his crisis rhetoric. Coulter was not placated. “Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush,” she tweeted minutes after he was done speaking, “as of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States.”
When the history of this moment is written, a key actor may turn out to be long-time Republican campaign guru and Democrat nemesis Karl Rove. While Mitch McConnell has been widely excoriated in the press for not playing a constructive role in resolving the wall funding crisis over the past month, his ability to maneuver has been sorely constrained by the tight grip the President holds over members of his caucus. McConnell fears that the 2020 election cycle could be a repeat of the disastrous Watergate election of 1974, when the GOP was decimated in the wake of the resignation of Richard Nixon. Earlier this week, he brought Rove in to discuss the political lay of the land with Republican Senators. He hoped that Rove — who is as good as they come at reading polls — would shake up his colleagues, particularly the 22 Senators up for re-election just over eighteen months from now.
Mitch McConnell’s choice of Rove may turn out to have been a cunning move. In the wake of mid-term elections where independent voters turned on the GOP, and armed with polls that indicate that barely one in five independents have bought into the President’s contention that we face a crisis at the border, Rove made the case that while Donald Trump has consistently declined to expand his base of support beyond his core supporters and conservatives, that will be a losing strategy for Republican Senators. With polls suggesting that independents now make up nearly half of the electorate, Rove argued that the 2020 race will be won by those who expand their support and win independents to their side, while those who choose to stand firm, relying only on conservatives alone, will be sent packing.
While Nancy Pelosi has been successful at wresting the initiative back from the President, it remains to be seen if the furious reaction of conservatives will stiffen Trump’s spine and put us back where we started. Today was but a respite; if we are going to put this political crisis behind us, McConnell and Senate Republicans will not be able to continue to stand on the sidelines. McConnell knew that if he was going to successfully intervene, and ultimately garner the votes that will be necessary to push through a final resolution, he first needed to shake his members up. His objective in bringing in Karl Rove was nothing less than to instill a balance of terror in the minds of Senate Republicans: members of his caucus may be consumed by fear of the President and his tweets, but he had to make them understand — as Rove laid out in excruciating detail — that they have even more to fear from the voters eighteen months down the road.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.