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Shutdown politics in the age of Trump

A little obstruction can help Democrats get a lot of things done.

Congressional Democrats DACA
Chuck Schumer aims to get it neither too hot nor too cold.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Senate Democrats have been criticized from both sides for having shut down the federal government (admittedly for only one workweek day). At the outset, President Trump described the move as threatening the security of the nation. At the conclusion, some liberal groups blamed Democrats for caving rather than keeping the government shut until a real deal on immigration was reached.

Moderate Senate Democrats took the middle road, accepting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise to allow debate on an immigration bill in return for a short extension of funding for the government. Of course, taking the middle road leaves at least two other roads divided. In this case, the Democrats ultimately chose not to keep the government open or to dig in their heels in pursuit of a solution for the 690,000 DREAMers — immigrants protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump is ending.

Was the decision to reopen the government a smart one? If so, was it smart to cause a shutdown in the first place?

Maybe it was a bad idea to cause a shutdown

Obviously, one can argue that Democrats made a mistake in causing the shutdown in the first place. One classic argument is simply that the government should always remain open. Other, less absolute, arguments rest on the notion that Democrats essentially overplayed their hand this time.

That is, even though polls consistently show that there is broad support for the DREAMers, it was unclear whether more people would blame Trump and Republicans, or the Democrats, for a shutdown. Furthermore, even if a majority of voters initially blamed Trump and Republicans, it is difficult to project how that support would evolve as the shutdown started to have increasingly significant effects on the public and financial markets.

Maybe it was a bad idea to open the government

There are several reasons one might argue that Democrats’ mistake was not in shutting down the government but in allowing it to reopen without an immigration deal. For example, some argue that the Democrats are being taken advantage of by the Republicans. In addition, while the issue is polarizing within both parties, immigration is an issue that divides the Democratic Party more so than it does the Republican Party, and backing down just solidifies and deepens these divisions. Finally, backing down at this point, when their bargaining advantage appeared so significant, hurts Democrats’ future bargaining power.

Maybe both were good ideas

Admitting the plausibility of the arguments above, it is possible to argue that causing a short shutdown was the right move for Senate Democrats. The reason for this is, at its heart, very simple. Donald Trump is an unreliable ally, particularly on immigration. More generally, shutdown politics is the new normal and is increasingly relevant now that Trump is in the White House.

The 2018 midterm elections

Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have their eyes on November 6, 2018. Elections always loom large in congressional politics, of course, but the 2018 midterm election casts an especially long shadow for a variety of reasons. First, owing in part to the 2006 midterm election, the Democratic Party is defending far more Senate seats (24, plus two independents) than the GOP (eight). This is particularly important because if the Democrats and GOP split the 34 seats up for election this year, the GOP would have 60 senators in 2019.

Second, a combination of internal and external forces are leading many GOP incumbents to not seek reelection. For example, as of today, 34 Republican members of the House have announced they will not seek reelection, compared to only 15 Democrats. Regardless of whether one views those decisions as a cause or an effect, there is much higher uncertainty about which party will control the House of Representatives in 2019 than there was in 2016.

Shutdowns and elections

Because the federal government does not currently have a traditional budget and is, instead, funded through temporary budget extensions, the regularly recurring debates about the budget represent a reliable opportunity for both parties — and in particular the minority party — to garner the public’s attention.

Congressional elections are increasingly national affairs: The Republican and Democratic National Committees each play very more active roles in recruiting and financing candidates across the country. Potentially shutting down the government offers an opportunity to establish a “message” or “theme” for the party. Given that the Democrats are the minority party in both chambers of Congress, obstruction represents the only reliable tool they have to force the majority to the bargaining table, and shutting down the government represents the most reliable way to get the public to notice.

Once the issue of the DREAMers was linked with funding the government, Democrats were faced with the choice of signaling that it was an important issue around which they were unified, or publicly acknowledging that they were not willing to incur any cost to achieve immigration reform.

Shutdowns with Trump in the White House

When Republicans engaged in shutdown politics during President Obama’s administration, the scene was different: The GOP controlled both chambers of Congress and thus could present actual legislation, such as attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The GOP could, and occasionally did, negotiate with Obama.

Things are more complicated with Trump in the White House. Realistically, any deal on immigration will require his signature. However, and simply put, Trump is a poor leader: He does not stay on message, his word cannot be relied upon by either his allies or his adversaries, and his actual policy positions are murky, to say the least.

Accordingly, it is very hard to see why members of either party would expect that a reliable bargain on immigration could be reached between themselves and Trump, and, ultimately, keeping the government shut for an extended period in pursuit of such a deal makes sense only if members of both parties think such a bargain can be reached.

A Goldilocks approach to obstruction

Showing a little backbone and demonstrating unity in the face of electoral pressure can ultimately help Senate Democrats. But key to these is the qualifier “a little.” After all, if one believes that Senate Republicans — not to mention House Republicans — are leery of sticking their necks out on a hot-button issue such as immigration without cover from the president, then one needs to believe that they will be extra leery of doing so under this president, regardless of what he says.

Keeping the government shut down for an extended period was not going to change the reality that most Republicans would be unwilling to take a stand that would quite possibly be the target of the next Twitter barrage from their party’s leader.

So incurring a significant amount of short-lived news cycle heat for taking a stand on DACA can be useful for Democrats: It draws attention to the unity of Senate Democrats around the issue without making the Democratic Party appear unreasonable.

With Trump in the White House, negotiating and making real policy on many important issues — like immigration and health care — will be replaced by maneuvers and gambits largely aimed at the 2018 elections. With the recent shutdown, Democrats have signaled that the DREAMers are going to be part of their message. In the next few weeks and months, we’ll see how Republicans respond in their attempt to shape their message for the midterm elections.

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