The longest government shutdown in US history was suspended when US President Donald Trump agreed to sign a continuing resolution that would allow the Federal government to operate for three weeks. Those critical of Mr. Trump have framed the President’s decision as a victory for House Leader Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats. Having blocked the President from giving his second State of the Union Address on the traditional date, it appears Mr. Trump may well have capitulated over the negative connotations to his Presidency and legacy that will be associated with his delayed Congressional address for the rest of history. It certainly seems Pelosi capitalized on some kind of leverage she had over the President. Trump and his defenders, however, have tried to frame his capitulation as a short-term strategic loss and compassionate compromise. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. One thing is for certain: the underlying power struggle is far from over. The real question is how much damage will US leaders inflict on their constituents.
The 35-day US government shutdown, allegedly over a $5 billion border wall, has cost the American People, at least, an unrecoverable sum of $3 billion. Congressional Democrats have agreed to take up the border security debate, but a 17-member bipartisan conference committee on the issue will only have 17 days to create some kind of agreement on border security amicable to Congressional Democrats, Congressional Republicans, and the President. For Democrats and Republicans, who have been debating border security for decades, there are a number of options already in the works that they might be willing to finally institute. For the President and his supporters, however, the only solution may well be his proposed border wall or one of similar scope. It is not so much the President who needs to be convinced of a lesser solution. It is his supporters who will likely see anything less than what was promised as an act of capitulation and betrayal on his behalf. Feeling vulnerable, the President may well best be served by another, and potentially longer, government shutdown.
It is important to recognize the underlying reason why the US government shutdown. The President told Congressional Democrats to include funding for his border wall in the Federal Budget. When newly empowered Democrats did not to appropriate money for Trump’s wall, a relatively small sum in comparison to the size of the Federal Budget, the President allowed the government to run out of money. While his proposed wall may well be an important priority for the President, it was not the underlying motivation. Trump understood Democrats did not want to fund his proposal, but he wanted to should the newly empowered Democrats that he was the boss. Democrats needed to defy the President in order to reestablish their authority. The entire affair was a power clash between two factions vying for leverage over each other after an contentious election. The harm done to Federal workers, the American People, and US economy is simply collateral damage. The first part of this government can easily be blamed on the President and his Congressional Republicans as the leaders of government, but a second part could easily be blamed on Democrats, which could serve the President’s political goals.
Among Trump supporters, a second government shutdown over border wall funding will only further solidify their view that Democrats are to blame. The simple truth is that Congress is unlikely to reach a satisfactory solution on border security for Trump supporters, which is the key demographic motivating the President’s actions. Giving Democrats an honest and reasonable chance to work toward a solution on border security will likely help the President garner increased sympathy, but the situation requires more than a straightforward political calculation. Democrats simply have to make a good faith gesture in order to diffuse blame for a second government shutdown. As long as Democrats discuss border security and potential solutions, then move to institute any reasonable options, the vast majority of Americans will blame Trump for a second shutdown. Democrats appear to be doing just that. In many respects, Trump finds himself in a difficult situation. He will need to find a way to frame the actions of Democrats as disingenuous while convincing the American People that his proposed border wall is worth the cost of another government shutdown. Another shutdown may well be a big risk with a big price-tag that offers a relatively small political benefit for the President.
One thing Democrats could do wrong is backtrack on their pledge to work on border security. If they fail to actively participate in a meaningful debate on border security and fail to support reasonable policy options that emerge, they will share in the political backlash of a second government shutdown. That said, the debate on border security is also an opportunity for Democrats. If they make a series of compelling, irrefutable arguments against what the President wants, they will undermine his credibility and bolster their own. A second shutdown would, in turn, be characterized as the product of the President’s bruised ego. For Democrats, a second government shutdown offers a political benefit as long as they maintain their innocence in the affair by engaging in good faith efforts. For Trump, not necessarily Republicans, there is a second government shutdown offers a political benefit among his supporters and the general population, if the President can skillfully maneuver the complexities of public perceptions. If history is any indication, Democrats will perform adequately then the President will have a meltdown when he does not get exactly what he wants. Given the cost of a shutdown to all, the President would be wise to either find alternative funding for his wall or find a series of far more pressing issues to overwhelm discussion of the shutdown.
Read old posts