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Trump Dropped His Demand To Fund The Wall — That’s Smart Politics

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

If Robert Frost had been writing about President Trump’s proposed southern border wall, that “something” would have been the American people — turns out not many of them actually like the idea of building it. In late March, Quinnipiac found that 64 percent of Americans thought “beginning to fund the wall along the border with Mexico” was a “bad idea.” On Tuesday, Trump decided to withdraw his demand that funding for the wall be included in a short-term government funding bill due to pass Congress this week. (If it doesn’t pass by midnight Friday, the government will shut down).

While the president’s backing down could be read as a loss of face, it could also more charitably be interpreted as good politics. The wall was a useful metaphor — just like Frost’s wall (read the whole poem) — that helped Trump get elected; it was brash shorthand that communicated his restrictive immigration policies to voters. And many of them interpreted it as such; most voters didn’t vote for Trump because they were eager to see construction start, according to polls, but rather because they wanted to elect a man willing to take such a bold, fiscally dadaist stance.

Polls show that building the wall is quite a low priority for most Americans; in a March Fox News poll, only 3 percent of people overall and 6 percent of Republicans said that it was the accomplishment they most wanted to see from Trump. A January Gallup poll found Americans giving a similar low priority to wall construction: Only 26 percent overall and 38 percent of Republicans thought it was “very important” to build it. A January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 55 percent of people thought that building the wall “should not be pursued.”

Trump’s decision not to shut down the government over the wall — Democrats would have been unlikely to sign on to any bill that included wall funding, and their support is needed to pass the budget bill — seems smart. (Why the White House ever made the demand in the first place is another question.) It looks like the government funding bill and the end of his first 100 days are what weigh most heavily on Trump’s mind right now, which leaves the wall in a holding pattern for the moment. “We will continue to seek funding through the FY18 and further budgets to make sure that the actual [wall] — it is completed,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a briefing Tuesday.

The administration appears to have dropped the idea that Mexico will provide financing up front for the border wall, which comes as less of a surprise when you realize that not many people were ever convinced that Mexico was going to pay for it. In November 2016, right after Trump’s election, Quinnipiac asked if respondents thought Trump would get Mexico to pay for the border wall and only 19 percent overall and 35 percent of Republicans said “yes.” Perhaps that’s why Trump felt OK tweeting earlier this week that, “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall.”

While the wall is no longer a bargaining chip in the budget negotiations, its metaphorical powers remain undiminished. There might be a wait, but America can rest assured that the time will come, as Frost said, to “set the wall between us once again”; we have not heard the last of it.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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