Brawl over wall is theater of the absurd

SAN DIEGO — The media is still buzzing about this week’s televised 17-minute confrontation between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders over a possible shutdown if Congress doesn’t approve additional funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Yet, people are talking about the wrong thing.

The narrative is that soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stood up to Trump.

But, as absurd as it is, the real story is how the standoff was over something that usually unites the parties: border security.

After leaving the White House, Pelosi was asked by reporters why she kept insisting that the discussion be held behind closed doors and not “in the public view.” She claimed that it was to protect Trump from further embarrassment because he didn’t know what he was talking about. The reporters seemed to buy it.

But the actual reason that Pelosi didn’t want to have that discussion out in the open was probably because she didn’t want to publicly oppose the border wall and set up Democrats for accusations of being soft on illegal immigration. She also didn’t want to expose the fissure between Democrats who oppose the wall and those who would go along with it because they fear a backlash from voters.

Meanwhile, Schumer seemed pleased that he goaded Trump into claiming the mantle of border-protector-in-chief. To political observers, it looked like Schumer scored a tactical win by getting Trump on tape threatening a shutdown.

But, in truth, Schumer’s stunt was a hollow victory. The refugee caravan changed the equation, turning many Americans against a more lenient approach to border enforcement.

Last month, with the caravan story front and center, a Gallup poll found that the number of Americans who think immigration is the top problem facing the United States jumped to 21 percent from 13 percent the previous month.

Schumer told Trump that “experts say you can do border security without a wall.” But, of course, these are the same experts who got us to this point by tolerating illegal immigration.

Besides, Pelosi and Schumer could afford to be smug as they exited the White House. Pelosi is from California, Schumer from New York. Those are blue states. They could vote “no” on a border wall, and not pay a price. That’s not the case with centrist Blue Dog Democrats, who might conclude the safer course of action is to simply vote for Trump’s wall.

Welcome to the politics of immigration, where Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to take a hardline on the border.

The debate is a headache for both parties. Republicans have to make peace between nativists who want fewer immigrants and business, which wants more; Democrats have to referee a tug-of-war between Latinos who are fine with more immigration, and organized labor, which wants less.

No wonder so many politicians avoid tackling immigration for decades at a time.

And no wonder the media clings to familiar narratives. Why not report that, when it comes to erecting barriers on the border, Democrats and Republicans are more aligned than either side wants to admit?

Democrats love imposing structures, and drones in the sky, and extra border patrol agents, and National Guard troops on the border, and what some call “virtual walls” of electronic sensors.

The Democrats’ love affair with border security started in 1994 when President Bill Clinton militarized the U.S.-Mexico border through Operation Gatekeeper. It continued to 1996 when Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which empowered the U.S. attorney general to order barrier construction on the U.S.-Mexico border and authorized the construction of yet another layer of border fencing.

The infatuation continued to 2006 when 26 Democratic senators voted to support the Secure Fence Act, which authorized construction of about 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border and the use of satellites, drones and checkpoints. Democrats who voted “yes” included Schumer, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

The left says that there is a difference between a fence and a wall. But, actually, when the fence has multiple layers, the difference is negligible.

The Democrats’ fascination for border security continued to 2010 when, as a president, Obama signed the Southwest Border Security Bill, which spent $600 million to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. Among the bill’s loudest proponents were Pelosi and Schumer.

Now liberals are making a big spectacle of opposing Trump’s border wall. They say it won’t work. But maybe they’re afraid it would.

Besides, who are Democrats kidding? They appreciate a good border barricade as much as the next party.