Henningsen: Too Useful To Solve

Jan 7, 2019

The Shutdown is forcing both sides to embrace possible solutions to a problem neither particularly wants to solve. President Trump demands a border wall - what some have called a “toy” - a big display that won’t address the major challenges of immigration and border security. Democrats claim to respond with tools: targeted programs that might ease at least some of the problems along our southern border.

But beyond ending the Shutdown, it’s not clear how serious either side is about addressing the actual problem. After all, the president needs the border issue to alarm the American public and distract us from other things. And it’s difficult to know how hard Dems wish to work to assemble their toolkit.

Both sides know that developing and implementing policy is hard. It involves compromise, which means disappointing supporters. Simply calling out your opponent’s bad ideas and evil plans is easier and carries a more immediate payoff. Note, for example, that just as Republicans made hay opposing Obamacare while never presenting a serious alternative of their own, Democrats have tended to trash every Trump immigration idea without offering much in return.

From a policy point-of-view, this is a disaster. No solution will come – can come - from such finger-pointing and bickering. But from a political perspective such dispute is a winner: inflaming the base, motivating donors, and solidifying voter support for 2020.

And that’s the problem. It’s not that the two sides don’t agree on a solution – it’s possible that neither side really wants a solution, or, more properly, wants to pay the political cost of a solution. The status quo serves both well. If either side thought there was much of a middle to which to appeal – a vast reservoir of undecided voters out there whose opinion might make a decisive difference in future elections – they might be more amenable to sitting down to broker a deal, which both sides agree is certainly possible. But it seems those voters aren’t there, which makes any concession to the other side look and feel like a loss.

Eventually the Shutdown will end. But the fundamental challenge of immigration and border security will remain. It’s too useful a problem to solve.