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Carl Leubsdorf

Back in the early 1960s, a cheerful, bald man named George Singelmann often visited The Associated Press office in New Orleans where I was a junior staffer. But his purpose was nasty, not cheerful.

The right-hand man for arch-segregationist Leander Perez, Singelmann was pushing a plan to retaliate against Northern civil rights advocates who had sent "freedom riders" into the South to desegregate bus terminals, restaurants and other public facilities.

Calling them "reverse freedom riders," he enlisted poor black families to head north, giving them a small amount of cash and bus tickets to the home towns of civil rights activists or officials in hopes they would prove as unwelcome there as the Freedom Riders were to Southerners waging their last-ditch fight against desegregation.

Singelmann's scheme pretty much fizzled. Some took advantage of the offer to visit northern relatives, others immediately returned south, some were welcomed, but it never attracted much attention. I recalled it last week when President Trump suggested shipping detained migrants to the "sanctuary cities" in the home areas of prominent Democratic opponents like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

There is a significant difference between black U.S. citizens, who might have seen a reason to escape widespread Southern racism, and illegal entrants, being shipped against their will. But there is a parallel in the way both Singelmann and Trump basically sought to take advantage of the less fortunate to make a political point.

Dealing with the politics of problems, rather than their substance, has been Trump's way of coping with some key areas he declared at the 2016 GOP National Convention that "I alone can fix." It's one reason he has failed to meet his promises to reduce illegal border crossings, "repeal and replace" Obamacare and turn "bad trade agreements into great trade agreements."

To be sure, Trump has fulfilled some 2016 promises, cutting taxes and scrapping business regulations. But even some allies acknowledge he has made the immigration situation worse, millions have lost health care coverage or are paying more, and his unilateral tariffs have threatened the global economy while producing only one new trade agreement, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement that closely resembles the prior pact, NAFTA, he repeatedly denounced.

On immigration, Trump's political approach was exemplified by his recent purge of top Homeland Security officials, as well as repeated threats to close the border or ship illegal asylum seekers to Democratic areas.

Changes that have exacerbated the problem include the administration's much criticized policy of separating children from their parents in a futile hope of discouraging more immigration, threats to reduce the immigration courts that process illegal refugees seeking asylum, and his order cutting off the aid that helped Central American countries alleviate the economic problems and crime that prompted many to seek refuge.

The president did propose a one-sided legislative package that combined strict curbs on legal immigration with funding the border wall he once said would be financed by Mexico.

But he killed the most promising legislative initiative, a bipartisan group's compromise plan that met a number of his goals while giving the Democrats the permanent status they sought for the Dreamers brought in illegally as children

The Wall Street Journal's editorial page recently described Trump's approach to immigration as "policy incoherence that sounds tough but accomplishes nothing."

Similarly, Trump has talked more of providing "great health care" than proposing ways to do it. The administration backed proposals by the former House GOP majority to fulfill its long-standing pledge to scrap Obamacare, but encountered problems as it became increasingly evident it threatened coverage for the millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions, now protected by the Affordable Care Act.

His recent vow to make the GOP "the party of health care" was primarily designed to offset the negative political fallout from his abrupt order to intervene in a court case invalidating Obamacare.

Trump has refused to claim responsibility for his failures, blaming Democrats in Congress for the immigration situation, and the late Sen. John McCain for the lack of health care progress.

Now, amid typical Trumpian bluster, there is talk that Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and influential White House aide, is drafting a compromise immigration plan. The president himself is again talking of an administration plan to replace Obamacare, to be considered after the next election. And he still hopes for a trade agreement with China.

Still, with Democrats running the House and Republicans controlling the Senate, Trump's consistently partisan approach is unlikely to produce legislative progress on these issues. That means that he will again promise in 2020 that, if elected, he'll fix the immigration problem, the health care mess and the trade imbalances he pledged to fix when he first ran.

The question then will be whether a majority of voters will agree that "he alone can fix it." His tenure has made clear that the only real hope of fixing these complex problems is with the substantive, bipartisan approach he has rejected so far.

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Carl Leubsdorf writes for the Dallas Morning News.

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