Against the Grain

Why Trump’s Losing the Shutdown Fight

A simple political rule of thumb: Never hold the government hostage for anything, even if it’s a cherished campaign promise.

President Trump speaks to reporters about border security Thursday.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Jan. 4, 2019, 1:25 p.m.

Here’s a simple, time-tested rule of politics: The party that’s divided is the one that’s going to lose a legislative showdown. That lesson should be growing clearer for Republicans, who are beginning to see some of their most politically vulnerable members break with President Trump as the pain of a protracted government shutdown is becoming more evident.

More Politics 101: Holding government-funding hostage to any favored legislative priority—even those issues that are widely popular—is always a political loser. A leader taking the “mantle of blame” for a shutdown, as Trump did last month, is asking for trouble down the road. Offering no concessions, like legalizing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals kids of illegal immigrants in exchange for border-wall funding, is a surefire way to lengthen the political pain of a partial government shutdown.

Trump is handing new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a political gift by forcing rifts in his own party as she’s maintained a united front. With the new Congress just sworn in Thursday, already two swing-state senators up for reelection in 2020—Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine—have defected from the White House line on a border wall. And the three remaining House Republicans representing seats that Hillary Clinton carried have all broken ranks and voted to reopen the government without wall funding and against Trump’s wishes.

There’s only been limited polling since the government shutdown begun, but none of the findings are encouraging for the Trump administration. A Reuters/Ipsos survey, conducted between Dec. 21-25, found only 35 percent of respondents favored including money for a border wall in the congressional-spending bill. Just 25 percent support shutting the government down to secure the wall funding. Those are the numbers that are prompting Republicans to break away, and Democrats to remain united.

At a broader level, immigration is one of those issues where public opinion is hard to pin down given how nuanced most voters’ opinions are. When he’s focused on border security, the flaws of the current chaotic system, and the excesses of liberal Democrats’ anti-Immigration and Customs Enforcement rhetoric, Trump holds the political advantage. The average American isn’t supportive of open borders and is skeptical of excessive immigration. Trump tapped into some nativist sentiment to win the presidency in 2016.

But when the debate turns to an expensive taxpayer-funded border wall, the shabby treatment of asylum seekers in American custody, and the president’s obsessive attention to a caravan thousands of miles away, the politics turn in the Democrats’ favor. In a post-election analysis conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, undecided voters who made up their mind in the final week broke towards the Democratic candidate, 48-45 percent, despite Republicans holding a 16-point registration edge with this group.

What was dominating the news cycle in the campaign’s final week? Trump constantly raising the specter of a caravan carrying migrants entering the United States.

Key Republicans agree with this assessment. A memo from leading GOP pollster David Winston found that the “president’s near-singular focus on those issues repelled Hispanics, independents, and soft Republicans, turning a race for House control that leaned Democratic into a late-breaking GOP bloodbath.”

But Trump shows no signs of moderating his rhetoric or offering any real compromises on the issue. He appears to truly believe that he holds the political upper hand in the showdown, egged on by like-minded advisers who are hard-liners on the issue of immigration. Trump is also dependent on holding support from his base, making it critical for him to save face before making any concession.

So don’t expect a quick resolution to the gridlock. The next elections are nearly two years away, and Trump doesn’t play by the traditional political rules of his predecessors. Neither side has any political incentive to strike a quick deal. All this points to a lengthy partial government shutdown that will end when one side starts to feel true political pain.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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