Shutdown Politics: Where to Now?

By all appearances, Pelosi beat Trump, but there's a strategic play yet to be made.

Nate Jackson · Jan. 28, 2019

After 35 days, the partial government shutdown is over. President Donald Trump conceded to an increasingly painful reality Friday afternoon, signing a bill to reopen the government until Feb. 15, during which time he will continue to try to persuade Democrats to negotiate for a border barrier. They won’t. And then the president will “really have no choice” but to declare a national emergency so he can allocate funds to build a couple hundred miles of barrier. There’s little question that Friday’s deal was a temporary defeat for Trump and a big victory for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But there’s a lot more to this fight than meets the eye, and it’s certainly not over yet.

Trump arguably misstepped when he told “Chuck and Nancy” in their December meeting that he’d happily take responsibility for a shutdown. That sound bite only made blaming him for the shutdown easier for the media. Two other factors strengthened the Dems’ position. First, Trump Derangement Syndrome means anything Trump pitches — and he campaigned heavily on a “big, beautiful wall,” paid for by Mexico — is anathema. Second, Pelosi had taken to calling a border wall “immoral,” and there is simply no compromise when an issue has been made that black and white.

So what was Trump’s play in forcing the shutdown? He’s been floating an emergency declaration since December, but he couldn’t do it out of the blue. He needed to prove that the border is in a state of emergency. Over the course of the last five weeks, Trump showed just how intractable and entrenched Democrats really are, leaving him with no other recourse but to declare an emergency. Trump looked like the reasonable one by agreeing to a deal that included nothing he wanted, and Pelosi’s approval/disapproval spread is far worse than Trump’s. In fact, Trump’s support among Hispanics is up 19% in just one month.

Granted, declaring an emergency isn’t a clean play either. With 31 active emergencies on the books, Trump has a case. But Democrats will immediately challenge him in court, specifically where an activist Obama judge will block him, and such a declaration could set a precedent for a President Kamala Harris to tackle climate change with an emergency declaration. Moreover, it’s likely such a move by Trump would actually divide Republicans more than defeat Democrats.

Speaking of that, where was the congressional GOP in all of this? Senate Republicans couldn’t have been clearer about their disinterest in backing Trump. Recall too that the GOP controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the previous two years and did nothing about the border. Was immigration not an emergency then? Border security was Trump’s signature issue, but his administration did little to push a legislative effort until the GOP had lost the House. And Congress cared little for doing anything without his leadership. We’ll borrow one of Trump’s favorite words to describe this collective lack of effort: “Sad!”

Republicans also had unified control of Washington from 2001-2006. They did little on immigration. Democrats held power in 2009 and 2010. They did nothing — well, except take over the health and financial sectors of the economy. We’re left to conclude that both parties believe they benefit not from solving the major national problem of immigration but by exploiting it for political purposes.

A final note: Trump wanted $5.7 billion for a border barrier, while Washington University professor Liberty Vittert estimates the shutdown cost the American public approximately $40 billion — enough to pay for “the entire wall to be built and maintained for 40 years.” A more conservative estimate by the Congressional Budget Office still puts the economic toll at $11 billion, including $3 billion that’s permanent.

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