So far, the reaction to Donald Trump’s reported “sh-thole” comment has left me wondering whether anyone actually cares about making constructive public policy. You have people expressing outrage over the remark. You have others defending the comment or saying it isn’t true, and so on. All anyone on either side of the aisle seems concerned with is condemning or justifying Trump.
But none of that really matters in terms of policy. One should care less about who says what than about what actually gets done on immigration. Yes, I actually care about consequences and constructive policy, and I am willing to elevate a good piece of legislation above making judgments about either president’s total unacceptability or justification. Guilty.
Consider what happened. The president and selected participants (big leaguers from Congress) had a closed door conversation about immigration policy. Somewhere within that discussion, the president reportedly made the offensive remark. (If such a comment was made it was, indeed, offensive and unfair. I have zero interest in defending it.) What happened afterwards is interesting and disheartening. One of the participants went to the media to report the comment. At that point, the cake was baked and we have all had the chance to eat of it.
But try to imagine things a different way. The president makes the comment in a closed meeting. Some folks in the room object in a thoughtful manner and maybe even challenge the president to examine his attitude morally and spiritually. He has time to let it sit and think about it before the next gathering. Subsequent meetings happen. The group benefits from vigorous give and take, from honest critique, and from the simple process of examining the thing from various angles. In the end, maybe you actually get a decent reform to our immigration process that leaves people better off than they were before.
Running to the media short circuits all of that. Going to the press instead of continuing the conversation is the equivalent of pressing the terminate button. Instead of moving the ball down the field, we will simply continue the amazingly unproductive and highly charged public debate, no doubt advancing the careers of future candidates, but contributing little to the process of governing.
Instead, we get what I guess is an emotionally satisfying episode where we all endlessly debate the president’s rhetoric and attitude in a meeting. We get a great cable news item. We get panel after panel with hot take after hot take. Trump critics feel vindicated that he is terrible. Defenders proudly stand with a guy who “tells it like it is” even if the “snowflakes” don’t like it. And whatever negotiations we might have had recede into the distance. We get an outrage fest instead of better immigration system.
Is Trump wrong if he said what has been reported? Yes, he’s wrong. But I have to tell you that I question the policy seriousness of the person who took a comment from a meeting intended for negotiation and made a media circus out of it. Our immigration laws affect real people every day. We (and potential immigrants) deserve something so much better than cable news fodder.
I hope there are others like me who just want some decent public policy made and who take no satisfaction in this endless circus. We need something better than this constant gorging at the trough of bias confirmation that is no substitute for a policy debate.
Some may answer me by saying that President Trump is so terrible, and so far out of American norms that there is no point in actually attempting to bring about good public policy. They will believe the only path is pure opposition. That sort of mindset would explain the leaking of the “sh-thole” comment.
But I hope most people won’t agree with that point of view. In our highly polarized political environment, it is likely that we will very often see a victorious opponent as wholly unacceptable, and as someone with whom compromise is the wrong call, because we should spend all of our time trying to drum up enough bad feeling to defeat them. It’s fine to have the fight and to debate with strength of conviction, but I think it’s time all of us gave more attention to the actual task of the government instead of waging a perpetual ideological campaign.