A question that has come up a lot over the last few weeks is: Why didn’t Republicans fund a border wall, or at least a significant increase in physical barriers at the border, when they held both houses of Congress and the White House? I think the answer comes down to four points.
First: The administration, from the president down, never really made it a priority and followed through on it. The administration didn’t really have legislative priorities of its own in 2017-18: The top two congressional efforts, on tax reform and Obamacare, were put on the agenda (and largely designed) by the congressional leadership rather than by the White House.
Second: The Republican congressional leadership didn’t really care about the wall, and certainly wasn’t going to go to the mat for Trump on the issue when he wasn’t asking it to. They turned out, I think, to have been shortsighted about the wall. Trump had helped to bring into being a new Republican coalition whose political health depended to a significant degree on progress on the wall, whether or not Trump was exerting himself to deliver that progress. (Alternatively–and better from my perspective–Republicans could have tried to redirect their supporters’ attention to better ways to enforce the immigration laws, like mandating that employers check the legal status of new hires.)
Third: Throughout 2017 and 2018, Senate Democrats had the power to filibuster wall funding (and while Senate Republicans could have changed the rules to eliminate this power, they did not have 50 senators that wanted to take this step). So actually getting somewhere on the wall would have required a deal with the Democrats, likely one giving permanent legal status to illegal immigrants who came here as minors.
Fourth: When Senate Democrats, in the aftermath of their own failed shutdown last year, proposed such a deal, Trump turned it down because he wanted more, including cuts to legal immigration. I think there’s a case for such cuts, but he had not campaigned on them and there was nowhere close to a congressional majority for them. He overreached, in other words, and threw away the best chance he had to deliver a major campaign promise (well, part of that promise anyway, since a deal would not have made Mexico pay for the wall). It’s not clear he will get that chance again.