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OPINION | What Trump can learn from James Carville

AS George Stephanopoulos tells the story in his memoir of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential race, strategist James Carville was just trying to keep the campaign on message.

He scribbled a few lines on a whiteboard and stuck it to a pillar in the middle of the room at campaign headquarters. One of the lines read: “The economy, stupid.”

The White House would do well to remember that phrase as President Trump’s re-election campaign revs up. If the president “indefinitely suspended” his threat of placing tariffs on Mexican imports in part due to pressure from fellow Republicans in Congress, they did him a favor. Like everyone else, economic migrants are in search of a higher return on their labor. To the extent that a worker from Mexico can find satisfactory employment at home, he is less likely to head here. A trade war with Mexico would undermine the Mexican economy and create another incentive for workers to head north. Rather than stemming illegal border crossings, tariffs could well exacerbate them.

Mr. Trump’s frustration with Democratic inaction in the face of an obvious humanitarian crisis at the border is both understandable and justified. Democrats well know that our asylum system is being gamed, but won’t work with the White House to address the problem because they believe the chaos helps them politically. Meanwhile, migrant families from Central America are showing up with young children who will be detained for no more than 20 days and then released into society along with their parents.

And as Julia Preston of the Marshall Project has reported, most of them won’t show up for hearings to adjudicate their claims. “Of nearly 100,000 parents and children who have come before the courts since 2014, most asking for refuge, judges have issued rulings in at least 32,500 cases, court records show,” wrote Ms. Preston, a former immigration reporter for the New York Times. “The majority — 70 percent — ended with deportation orders in absentia, pronounced by judges to empty courtrooms.”

Because the U.S. shares such a long boundary with a significantly poorer country, some amount of illicit immigration is inevitable. We could and should do a much better job of managing the illegal flow, but ending it outright anytime soon is a pipe dream. The Journal reported this week that “the number of job openings exceeded the number of unemployed Americans by the largest margin on record in April, signaling difficulty for employers to find workers in a historically tight market.” In raw numbers, there were 7.5 million unfilled jobs but only 5.8 million people seeking work, and the worker shortage has been growing, not shrinking. Labor shortages in the U.S. serve as a powerful magnet for foreign nationals, and history demonstrates that when they can’t come through the front door, they’ll try the back way. Guest-worker programs would do far more to address this problem than imposing tariffs.

Trade wars also mean higher prices for U.S. consumers and uncertainty for businesses. Companies become more hesitant to bring on new employees or invest in additional equipment. Tariffs adversely affect the flow of goods, services and capital, which can translate into a drag on economic growth.

It’s a scenario that ought to be of particular concern to Mr. Trump, because his oversight of the economy has long been a strong suit of his presidency. Surveys consistently have his overall approval rating muddled in the low to mid-40s, but his stewardship of the economy — which includes historically low unemployment across racial and ethnic groups — has generally polled much better. In a CNN poll released last month, 56 percent of respondents said he was doing a good job on the economy, a new high for the president.

This record gives Mr. Trump a golden opportunity to expand his message to voters beyond his base, which is Joe Biden & Co.’s worst nightmare. Citing a national Survey-Monkey poll from May, the Times reported last week that black Democrats “are significantly more likely than whites to call jobs and the economy the most important issue facing the nation.” One black woman told the paper that Democrats running for president hadn’t focused enough on jobs and other core economic issues, adding that if the candidates were really listening to black voters, “you’d be hearing more about economic opportunities.... It’s almost like they don’t get it.” Ouch!

Mr. Trump has spent a fair amount of time in front of mostly white audiences boasting about what he’s done for black people on the jobs front, and it’s not a good look. A more fruitful approach might be for the president to visit some low-income minority communities in places like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, listen to their concerns, engage them in a way that Democrats are not, and talk about what strong economic growth has enabled blacks and others to do for themselves. If there was ever a time for Donald Trump to be channeling James Carville, it’s now.