Despite all the tumult in Washington during Donald Trump’s presidency, the political environment has been remarkably stable from the beginning of 2017. His job approval sunk after his inauguration, and has remained in a narrow, unhealthy zone ever since. The energy of the Democratic base has been supercharged throughout numerous elections in the past year. For a political prognosticator, anticipating the likelihood of a political wave isn’t all that hard, given how consistent all the fundamentals have been for months.
But with a government shutdown now underway, the possibility of a political shakeup is growing. Both parties are taking calculated risks that a high-stakes showdown would benefit them and shake up the sclerotic political environment. Republicans, lagging badly in polls, are betting that a Democratic Party willing to shut the government down over immigration policy is a rare gift that could turn the party’s fortunes around in many key races. Democrats, meanwhile, are confident that Republicans own any blame that would occur if the government shuts down—a point that public polling amplifies. And they expect the reaction to a shutdown would blunt the glow of good economic news that had slightly lifted GOP fortunes in recent weeks.
Even if their bullish predictions backfired, top GOP and Democratic strategists are reassuring themselves that any short-term shutdown will be long forgotten by November in an era of nonstop, headline-grabbing antics emanating from the White House.
Here’s the sobering reality: Both sides have a lot more to lose than to gain from a shutdown. By playing hardball, Democrats could blow their outside opportunity to retake the Senate—with a backlash brewing in many red states where Trump is popular and liberalized immigration policy is viewed skeptically. Meanwhile, the GOP’s prospects of keeping the House could dim further, with disaffected suburbanites unlikely to cut the party much slack over its all-too-frequent dysfunction.
These political crosscurrents are reflective of the divergent “ways to win” in the House and Senate. The GOP path to holding the House runs through the moderate suburbs, in areas where immigration is viewed quite favorably. For Democrats to win the Senate, they need to overperform with small-town Trump voters in states like Missouri, North Dakota, and West Virginia.
Democratic Party polling obtained by The Washington Post underscores how fluid the political ramifications are over a government shutdown. In the top 12 Senate battlegrounds, a 45 percent plurality of voters said they’d blame Trump and Republicans for a shutdown compared to 35 percent who’d blame Democrats. But if the perception is that the government shutdown is because of immigration, that advantage evaporates. And in the five Democratic-held Senate seats in the most Trump-friendly states, Republicans hold a 9-point edge (48-39 percent) if the government is shut down because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections. “If Republicans can make this about immigration, the victory is probably theirs,” the story concludes. (The survey was commissioned by Senate Majority PAC, the leading outside group helping Democrats retake the Senate.)
So far, congressional Republicans have played their hand more adroitly than their Democratic counterparts. The House, mostly along party lines, passed a short-term funding measure Thursday that keeps the government open another month and funds a seminal children’s health care program for six years. Republicans managed to convince most of their far-right flank to swallow the pragmatic measure to press their political advantage. They’re daring their Democratic counterparts in the Senate to vote against the continuing resolution over immigration.
But in the Trump era, nothing is ever that simple. The president is so deeply disliked that it’s hard for Republicans to win any tactical showdown these days. An undisciplined Trump could blink first, and blow up any carefully crafted legislative strategy. Or swing-district House Republicans could start acting nervous if polling quickly turns against them.
The outcome of this political staring contest isn’t inconsequential at all. Bill Clinton’s successful showdown with congressional Republicans over entitlement spending in late-1995 helped revive his political fortunes. And Republicans took a major political hit for provoking the 2013 shutdown, but were spared misfortune because of the Obama administration’s epic failure to produce a working health care website weeks later.
It’s difficult to envision Trump displaying the savvy political skills that Clinton and Obama used to their advantage during previous budgetary fights. But Democrats, who are on track for a historic political year, have a lot to lose by picking this fight. Do they really want to risk squandering their sizable political advantage over a government shutdown?