OPINION — Dueling teleprompter speeches and a high-drama walkout: This is what it looks like when our country’s leaders debate the best way to meet the challenges at the border and whether shutting down the government is the best way to settle it.
If no one budges this week — and the way talks have been going so far, optimism is not particularly warranted — the next step could be a national emergency, declared by the president. But first Donald Trump seems intent on diluting the word “emergency” to mean whatever he wants it to mean on a particular day or hour.
Storming out of a meeting with Democratic leaders didn’t help. Neither did hawking prime-time hyperbole from behind the executive desk — in much the same spot where Dwight D. Eisenhower explained his decision to send troops to enforce school desegregation in Arkansas in 1957, where Richard Nixon announced his decision to resign in 1974, and where George W. Bush spoke to the nation after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Trump’s speech on a crisis at the border was quickly fact-checked and found wanting, about how drugs and migrants flow into America, what would be the benefit of a wall (of concrete, steel, or some not yet decided upon material) and if the government’s present policies are actually exacerbating any crises.
By then, the president had found the time to threaten to withhold Federal Emergency Management Agency relief funds for California forest fires.
If a frustrated Trump decided to make the border crisis a national emergency, it would expand the definition of presidential power, a tactic decried by many Republicans when they accused Barack Obama of trying it.
But it would not be much of a shock to a country that is a little numb two years into all the moving parts and surprises of the Trump administration. Still, a solution that drastic would complicate an already complicated situation, and may not solve a thing.
The 800,000 government employees affected by the shutdown, as well as the workers and other businesses touched by the impasse and contractors who may never get paid, have more immediate things on their minds — food, rent, gas, holiday credit card bills coming due.
A real emergency: voting rights
What are we to make of a president whose brand was his ability to make a deal being unable to make a deal? And how are we to make sense of the direction of the country when big distractions crowd out other things that also deserve our attention?
The newly sworn-in House of Representatives, now under Democratic control, actually has been quite busy, putting forth bills to reopen government, starting with funding other departments and using stopgap funds for Homeland Security while the debate over how to best make America’s borders secure rages on.
And that’s not all, as the House took on election security, with legislation nicknamed the “For the People Act,” which would make it easier for citizens to register to vote and have their votes counted, and would require presidents to disclose their tax returns. Of course, the bill is going nowhere in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But Democratic Rep. John Lewis brought his historic fight in the 1960s for voting rights for all Americans into today’s divisive political scene when he said, in The Washington Post, “I truly believe deep in my heart that the way votes were not counted and purged in Georgia and Florida and other states changed the outcome of the last election” to harm Democrats. “That must never happen again.”
That the House of Representatives is, as of now, one member short because of possible voting irregularities in North Carolina spotlights how much questions of fairness and competence still plague the country’s voting systems, especially as close races predicted for 2020 may make the country and the Senate pay closer attention.
Among other provisions, the bill would also tighten ad disclosure rules for social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, and call for all states to use independent commissions to draw district lines, reducing the practice of partisan gerrymandering. The Supreme Court has said it would review the partisan maps in Maryland and North Carolina, which is sure to fuel yet more contentious debate.
Another emergency: guns
This week, House Democrats also introduced bipartisan legislation that would require all gun sellers, including private vendors left out of previous regulations, to conduct background checks on potential buyers. With most news outlets placing the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and resulting activism of survivors near the top of last year’s news developments, gun policy may be one subject that the current back-and-forth on the wall and the shutdown cannot obscure.
If so, it will also be because of cases such as the death of one little girl. The violent murder of 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes of Houston captured the attention of the world, and her funeral drew a church full of mourners, captivated by the photos and videos of the joyous child and enraged by the senseless shooting that ended her life.
Her funeral, the same day as Trump’s Oval Office address, has not so far merited a mention by a president preoccupied with big debates on the border and keeping to his message.
There are all kinds of national emergencies that even the person behind that big Oval Office desk may eventually need to face.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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