- - Monday, December 31, 2018

What a way to finish. Like a marathoner whose spent legs go wobbly a hundred yards shy of the tape, the nation seemed about to fall on its face during the waning days of the old year, as if barely able to straggle to the starting line of the new one. Before assuming that past performance is indicative of what’s to come, however, it’s instructive to remember that night follows day, the moon waxes and wanes, and the future, unlike the past, is not written in stone. It’s a blank slate on which an industrious people record their work.

No offense to poet T.S. Eliot, but the cruelest month may not be April, if ever it actually was, but December. Wall Street skidded to its worst year-end performance since 1931, with major indexes down around 10 percent for the month. With a record Christmas Eve sell-off, the 54 percent of American families who own stocks got a helping of coal in their Christmas stockings. A thousand-point rally in the Dow Jones Industrials the day after the holiday provided a measure of relief. A continuation of the market’s roller coaster ride will nevertheless require a stout heart.

Frightened observers looking for a villain point to the Federal Reserve vote a week before Christmas to raise interest rates a quarter of a point. But the Fed only worsened a market performance due in part to President Trump’s attempt to resolve the trade imbalance with China and halt its continuing theft of American intellectual property. A global competitor that owes its survival to the famous Long March, China can be expected to test the limits of U.S. endurance in 2019.

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The president’s Mexican standoff with Democrats and several Nervous Nellies of the Republican persuasion over building the wall on the southern border spilled into its second week as the old year died. Judging the effects on most Americans, the government shutdown is, so far, small stuff, but the long-term effects could be anything but small stuff.

Even while what’s left of the October “caravan” of Central Americans attempting to enter the United States languish in Tijuana, another wave of 15,000 illegals is forming up to head north from Honduras on Jan. 15. Like the earlier migrants, the thousands of men, women and children are egged on by immigrant rights organizations that intend to overwhelm U.S. border control and render American immigration law dead, powerless to stop the lawbreakers.

That’s why Mr. Trump is standing firm, so far, on his insistence that congressional Democrats pony up $5 billion for wall construction in the Department of Homeland Security appropriation for fiscal 2019. “We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely,” the president tweeted Friday, “if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with. Hard to believe there was a Congress & President who would approve!”

While the president spent the dying days of December vainly waiting in the White House for a budget deal, Nancy Pelosi prepared to reclaim the House speaker’s gavel when Congress reconvenes on Thursday. She’s taking her ease from a holiday retreat in Hawaii. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is lying low at his old Kentucky home, apparently with no kidney for either shutdown or fight for the wall. Nice guys finish last, and in Washington, the day of ladies and gentlemen may be over.

Beyond the Beltway, American presence underwent a year-end recalibration that to some has all the earmarks of retreat. Mr. Trump made a flash trip to visit U.S. troops in Iraq over Christmas, but he has made it clear he is done with Syria and wants to be done with Afghanistan. Rather than argue incessantly whether sending 2,000 U.S. troops into Syria was properly authorized, the president has pocketed his victory over the terrorists of the Islamic State and is withdrawing those troops in Syria and half of the 14,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

Seventeen years of warfare against the Afghan Taliban is about to surpass the length of the nation’s longest conflict, the war in Vietnam. Defending a nation 7,000 miles from home while failing to secure the nation’s own border defies reason and common sense.

The new year awaits, with shutdowns and cock-ups, but with hope and opportunity. “It’s not how you start,” the wise man said, “it’s how you finish.”

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