Trump's wall: Securing his base or splitting it?

Trump's wall: Securing his base or splitting it?
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Will declaring a national emergency on border security endanger President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE’s base or secure it? The answer likely determines 2020’s outcome. Modern presidential politics is about building and holding a base of supporters. Trump has decided to stake his precarious one on immigration and national security.  

In 2016, Trump turned just 46.1 percent of the popular vote into a solid electoral college victory. Despite what many saw as “winning by default,” he has governed as though by mandate. He has done exactly what he said he would do, not pulling back just to shore up his minority support.  

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Trump has played to his base, despite its size. His course has worked pretty well for him. It is not unique.  

Trump’s strategy follows the course of modern American presidential politics. Winning — and retaining — the White House means building and holding a base. Ideally, it also means enlarging it, but above all, it must held.  

Precarious is not necessarily a problem. Since 1976, eight of 11 presidential winners have gained less than 51 percent of the popular vote. Two have lost re-election; both lost their base.  

In 1976, Jimmy Carter of Georgia won every southern state except Virginia and Oklahoma. In his 1980 defeat, Carter lost all except Georgia.  

In 1988, George H.W. Bush ran on the Reagan legacy. Breaking his “no new taxes” pledge, he went down in defeat in 1992.  

The same applies even in the extreme case of impeachment. Nixon resigned when it was clear Senate Republicans would not stand by him. Clinton survived because Senate Democrats did.  

Today’s question: How will Trump’s base react to a decision to declare a national emergency and build a wall on the Mexican border. Will it secure or split it?

There will be Republican objections. Those concerned about expanding government’s scope — particularly the presidency’s — will bridle. And they will fear the precedent — one that a Democrat president could someday use — more than the act.  

However, these Republicans are likely not Trump’s base. Presumably, a large portion are part of the 12 percent of Republicans who exit polling showed supported someone else in 2016 — 8 percent voted for Clinton and 4 percent voted for someone else or did not answer. (Interestingly, an almost equal number of Democrats did the same — voting 8 percent Republican and 3 percent for “other”). So, he is likely not endangering their support.

Trump’s support is also comparatively strong as he undertakes this action. According to Rasmussen daily tracking polling, Trump had a 49/50 percent approval/disapproval rating on Feb. 19. That negative rating snapped a seven-day string of positive approval readings, a run unmatched since February 2017.

Although critics will dispute it, he also can claim he has made a case for this action. Many will see the border situation as a bona fide national emergency. Trump will point to his two-year inability to get funding through Congress — which he punctuated with history’s longest federal government shutdown. Despite an additional three-week negotiating period, he obtained just $1.4 billion of the $5.7 billion he requested. 

Of course, the left will refute this. However, they have no choice but to. Their base requires it and if they let Trump’s national emergency declaration stand un-refuted, then their own inactivity to address a national emergency is implicitly indicted.  

The outcome in Congress and the courts is unclear. The high stakes involved for Trump are transparently so. First, his reelection will be decided at the margins. Should he win, it is likely to be close. That was the nature of his 2016 victory and his governing in office since. He has crafted a unique base and played to it thus far in office. 

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The economy will provide him a significant 2020 tailwind, a signature win would crown it. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act did not provide the boost Republicans hoped for in the 2018 midterms. ObamaCare still stands.  

A definitive, tangible accomplishment would greatly help, but these will be hard to come by in a now divided Congress. His renegotiated NAFTA trade deal still depends on Democratic House support. Few things would be more definitive and tangible than the wall he has championed since his candidacy. Few things offer more individual credit than this done by presidential action. 

Thus far in his presidency, Trump has held his own. With his action on the wall, we now wait to see if he can continue to do so — his presidency likely depends on it. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.