Typically, when Congress and the president fail to enact spending legislation to keep government agencies open, a blame game ensues. After a few days, or a couple of weeks, one party eventually realizes from public opinion polls that it is losing that game. So to avoid lasting political damage, the suffering party capitulates, the government re-opens, and the country goes on with its business.
There is good reason to believe that not only will we see a shutdown by the end of this week, but also that ending it won’t be so easy. Why? Because this shutdown would be instigated by not by one party, but by one man—a man who has shown little regard for public opinion, polls and the long-term viability of his political party.
Donald Trump has called for a shutdown so many times—always in an attempt to secure ample funding for his proposed border wall—that you may have stopped taking him seriously. To recap, in May 2017, when he first declared on Twitter, “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” it was a hot air blast to mask the fact he had accepted a proposal to keep the government open through September of that year without Democrats conceding on the wall. In August 2017, he reiterated the threat, yet a few weeks later abruptly accepted a Democratic proposal to both keep the government open and raise the debt limit.
In January 2018, it was the Democrats who instigated a brief shutdown, hoping to codify protections for young undocumented immigrant “Dreamers.” Once that shutdown ended and negotiations to keep the government open through September were nearing a successful conclusion, Trump mused, “I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of.”
All this year, Trump has kept the threat alive—in April, June, July, and early September. Then he flinched again. Republican congressional leaders, terrified at the prospect of owning a shutdown right before the midterm elections, boxed him in. In late September, they gave Trump two separate spending bills that kept parts of the government open through September 2019, and attached to one of them a measure to keep the rest of the government open past Election Day, into December. The longer-term elements touched on areas Trump likes to brag about supporting: military operations, veterans’ care, maintenance of our nuclear arsenal and anti-opioid programs. Perhaps reluctant to veto spending on his key priorities, Trump signed the bill without a fuss.
After the midterm elections, the president picked up where he left off. In mid-November, he said that “this would be a very good time to do a shutdown.” And most prominently last week, Trump audaciously told the Democratic congressional leaders, on camera, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security. … I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”
Taking Trump at his word is always a risky proposition. But there are several reasons this threat is different from all those that proceeded it.
First, we are just past the midterms and far away from the 2020 presidential election. With no chance of immediate electoral impact, any panic from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who once called himself “the guy who gets us out of shutdowns”) can be more easily ignored by Trump.
Second, with Trump increasingly on the defensive thanks to the investigations of foreign influence on his campaign, inauguration and administration, he is eager to go on the offensive somewhere and rally his political base. What could be more satisfying to that base than a battle royal for his signature campaign promise?
Third, because Trump and Congress have already approved spending for some government agencies, what awaits us is not a complete government shutdown but a partial one. And some affected agencies would still be able to limp along. According to Bloomberg, “National parks would remain open,” even though “most employees who maintain them would be sent home,” and the “State Department would keep issuing passports.” There would still be impacts, of course, such as the Food and Drug Administration suspending routine inspections of food and drug facilities, and the Securities and Exchange Commission stopping most new Wall Street investigations. But as those sorts of impacts wouldn’t be felt immediately by the average American, Trump might believe he can ride out a partial shutdown for an extended period of time.
I’m not arguing he can actually win in the court of public opinion for instigating a shutdown, let alone win money for the wall. As I have written previously, the instigator of a shutdown has always lost the public’s support and failed to secure the policy objective that prompted the shutdown. The tactic is always widely reviled as reckless and childish, shifting the focus away from the policy debate and toward the petulance of the instigator.
But if shutdowns only end when one side accepts it is losing public opinion and surrenders, what happens if Trump is losing public opinion and doesn’t care? He routinely disparages any poll that isn’t favorable to him as “fake news.” His approach to governing is to mainly cater to his base and ignore everyone else. His interest in protecting the reputation of the Republican Party is nonexistent. If a prolonged shutdown provokes outrage in the media, that would only egg Trump on. Meanwhile, if he and the Republicans are the ones suffering in the polls, there would be no incentive for House Democrats, even those newly elected in Trump-won districts, to end the standoff by giving away the store, and the wall.
That would put the onus for re-opening the shuttered agencies on one man—the man who called himself “the guy who gets us out of shutdowns,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
His job wouldn’t be easy. McConnell would need to hustle about 19 Republican senators (plus himself) to make a dramatic break with Trump over his signature issue, join with Democrats and override the president’s veto. After this past midterm, there are only two Republican senators left representing states that Trump lost in 2016, Maine’s Susan Collins and Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who could be relatively easy to get. For another 17 to risk Trump’s fury and, more importantly, a primary challenger, is asking a lot.
That’s why McConnell might want to start thinking about how he’s going to ask. And any Republican senator who is worried about how a protracted shutdown would damage the GOP’s reputation might want to start thinking about how he or she is going to explain a possible override vote to their conservative constituents.
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.