Sometimes, it feels fantastic to have been wrong. Such was the sensation watching Nancy Pelosi tell President Trump in a wave of pithy sound bites that he would not be getting his wall, not now, not ever, and that the amount of money she was willing to offer was zero point zero dollars. Head slamming against the metaphorical ground like an inflatable tube man outside a car dealership, the president flailed for a full 35 days while he held the federal government hostage because he could not have his wall toy. Monday morning, the government was reopened — temporarily.
When I was a young inflatable tube man, I too would create such scenes; my mother, like Pelosi, did not indulge. The stakes, admittedly, were somewhat lower, which is to say 800,000 Americans did not go without pay for the length of my outburst. (Federal workers stood in soup lines, missed child support payments and struggled to make rent.)
But let’s get clear on one thing: For Trump’s base, the wall has the weight that Obama’s promise to fix health insurance had for Democrats. If you question that, a little visit to the red zone, from which I recently returned, will set you straight. Plenty of other Americans believe the wall is berserk, medieval and racist — and that, were the reasons why properly articulated, supporters might change their minds. In reality, it can be both fully demented and Trump’s raison d’être. (As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer memorably wrote, “The cruelty is the point.”)
Pelosi is an establishment Democrat; she wheels and deals with the best of them, talks about compromise way more than the left of the party would like, and is cozy with corporate money. So when this whole standoff started, you could imagine her trying to meet in the middle, trading in the ideals of her party to pick up 6.3 whole Trump supporters.
She did not.
“Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting.” (Dec. 11, after a pre-swearing-in conversation with Trump in the Oval Office)
"How many more times can we say no? Nothing for the wall." (Jan. 2, in an interview with the “Today” show)
“Many federal workers will not be receiving their paychecks, and what that means in their lives is tragic…. The president seems to be insensitive to that. He thinks maybe they could just ask their father for more money. But they can’t.” (Jan. 9, after a shutdown conversation with Trump in the Oval Office)
“It is unlikely that any one of these provisions alone would pass the House, and taken together, they are a non-starter.” (Jan. 19, in response to Trump’s offer to temporarily reinstate protections for so-called “dreamers” that he had rescinded)
“Have I not been clear on the wall? OK, no, I’ve been very clear on the wall.” (Friday, when a reporter asked whether the reopening would shift her position)
As of last week, a CBS News poll put Pelosi’s approval rating at 39% — dismal, sure, but her highest in a decade and higher than the president’s. She’s long had a reputation as a shrewd, capable negotiator; the list of bills Pelosi shepherded includes all-stars like Dodd-Frank and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Trump punctured the former in May and, in pursuit of a transgender military ban, is coming to steal the spirit of the latter. Reinstalled as speaker just weeks ago, Pelosi doesn’t have the power to steer our national ship toward crystal waters, but she can keep it from slamming into some of the rocks it was getting worked by under a Republican-controlled House and Senate. If this negotiation has been any indication, a 78-year-old woman with no redacteds left can make a hearty captain.
And strength she’ll need, as the voyage is far from over. Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that this was a mere detente. When asked if he’d take less than the $5.7 billion he’d initially requested, he said, “I doubt it.” Federal funding expires on Feb. 15.
Here’s hoping Pelosi brings a steely spine and mammoth shades to work on Valentine’s Day. In matters Trump, the country needs a fighter, not a lover.