The recent government shutdown was mercifully brief, but it did provide some interesting lessons in the current state of politics for Donald Trump and for Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The situation is, I am sorry to report, not good.
Going into the possible shutdown, everyone knew that the real goal was for each side to figure out a way to blame the other. Shutdowns, we have learned, are annoyances but not tragedies. Even the federal workers (including military personnel) who are affected are made whole after the fact, making relatively short shutdowns almost literally a matter of political theater.
And so it was over the weekend. Trump and the Republicans wanted to point the finger at Democrats, and Democrats wanted to say that it was the other side who was to blame.
The big surprise is that Democrats are somehow now being blamed for the whole mess—not just by Republicans but even by supposedly friendly media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. That things are being spun so clearly against the Democrats in this situation suggests an even larger dysfunction in our political culture than was already obvious.
The Favorable Political Environment for Democrats
The good news from the Democrats’ side was that the polls going into the end of last week were very favorable, showing that respondents by a clear majority thought that a shutdown would be the Republicans’ fault.
Even better for Democrats, the public by even wider margins believes that the so-called Dreamers (people who are Americans as a matter of fact, because they were brought to the country as children and know no other country) should be able to stay here and be given the opportunity to become Americans as a matter of law. The Democrats had made abundantly clear that they would reluctantly shut down the government only if it was necessary to force the Republicans and Trump to finally end the limbo into which Trump had cast the Dreamers when he issued an executive order last fall.
Moreover, the particular funding bill on which the Senate was going to vote included a transparent ploy by Republicans to fund health care for an even larger group of vulnerable American children via the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). This is a program that is popular among both Republicans and Democrats, so the idea that Republicans would fund that program only if the Democrats went along with the rest of the spending bill looked especially cruel and cynical.
In addition, the bill that Republicans wanted the Democrats to approve not only failed to protect Dreamers but was simply another stopgap measure to fund the government on an ad hoc basis, thus buying only a small amount of time and providing no guarantee that anything would be solved. And polling showed that people were tired of that, too.
Consider also that Democrats and the public knew that Trump had poisoned the waters with his infamous “shithole countries” remark (which was obviously not made better by the possibility that he had said “shithouse”), and that Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer had even offered to back full funding for Trump’s pointless and wasteful border wall, only to be rebuffed by Trump anyway.
To review, then, we had a very unpopular president and his even less popular party in Congress refusing for political reasons to protect innocent people who only want to continue to contribute to America, all the while holding other innocent children hostage to do so. Trump, meanwhile, was being pilloried for his utter incompetence, for his blatant racism, and for his obviously inhumane use of Dreamers as political pawns. And the Democrats had every reason to believe that the public was seeing all of this clearly.
The Dangerous Political Terrain Facing Democrats
Even so, it was obvious in advance that there would still be real risks for Democrats in actually going through with a vote to shut down the government. As I noted in a column that I wrote the day before the shutdown began:
The pundit class still thinks that shutdowns are problematic enough that the public ought to care about them. In something of a reinforcing loop, the public does care at least enough to say, ‘That’s messed up. One side or the other is to blame.’ And politicians want the other side blamed. Simple. If Republicans use their numbers correctly, they can position themselves as looking blameless.
It is that last sentence that captured the political risk for Democrats. This was not a simple majority vote in the Senate. Unlike Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act or to pass their misbegotten tax cuts for rich people and corporations, this vote actually required at least nine Democrats to sign on, if all 51 Republicans were to vote yea.
That meant that, even if as many as eight Democrats voted yea, the shutdown could still plausibly be blamed on the Democrats, because they would have voted 41–8 against the bill. They might have a good reason to think that they could justify their overwhelming opposition, but they could not credibly say, as they have in other situations: “Republicans have the votes to do this on their own. Don’t blame us if Republicans can’t get their own act together.”
As it turned out, however, Republicans did not even vote unanimously for their spending bill. Four Republican senators voted nay, and John McCain did not vote for medical reasons (but very likely would have been another negative vote, if only because of his stated concerns for Senate procedure). Meanwhile, five Democratic senators voted yea.
In other words, this was now a bipartisan vote against a measure that did not truly promise to resolve any of the long-term issues facing the country. What could go wrong?
Well, part of the problem is that the Democrats knew that they were going to be slimed by Trump and the Republicans no matter what. As I also wrote in my column the day before the shutdown began, it was utterly predictable that the Republicans would say that “the one issue that [Democrats] care so much about is protecting a bunch of illegal aliens.”
Because the public seemed to understand that Dreamers are not “illegals” in any but the most uninformed sense of that ugly term, however, I surmised that such a nakedly bigoted ploy would “probably will not play well politically to anyone but Trump’s ever-shrinking base.”
The Supposedly Liberal Press Issues a Verdict: Democrats Are Losers
In light of all of that, when the shutdown ended three days later with an agreement to extend government funding for three weeks in order to allow Congress to take one more stab at the problem of the Dreamers, my thought was that this would likely be viewed in the press as a small win for Democrats, who had at least managed to get Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to state publicly that he would allow a vote on the Dreamers.
That is not to say that McConnell is a man of his word (clearly not), nor is it to say that House Speaker Paul Ryan would ever bring up the bill for a vote in his chamber. Even so, the Republicans had agreed to fund CHIP anyway, meaning that Democrats had not lost anything there.
The worst that I thought one could say was that Democrats had agreed to too little, but with a three-week window, they could come back even stronger if Republicans continued to obstruct votes on the Dreamers. Republicans will still have to come up with nine Democratic senators to vote yea—and keep all of their own in line—to get the next anti-shutdown bill passed.
No one could have been surprised that Trump quickly tried to claim victory, saying that the Democrats have “CAVED.” That is Trump, in all of his adolescent bully-boy ingloriousness, and he is simply doing in cruder terms what Republicans have been doing for decades now.
But what was genuinely surprising was how the non-opinion coverage of the shutdown in The Times and The Post validated Republicans’ posturing. In the former, a reporter (under front-page headlines saying that the Democrats had “blinked” and “surrendered”) asserted that the Democrats were in serious damage control mode.
The reporter claimed that “[o]ver the weekend it became clear that using the shutdown to insist on protections for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants was a serious miscalculation.”
Interestingly, however, the only actual evidence of this “serious miscalculation” was the reporter’s observation that the Republicans’ Number Two man in the Senate, John Cornyn, had called for Republicans to be magnanimous, saying that Cornyn’s statement “might be the most telling observation about which side prevailed.”
The problem is that Cornyn’s self-serving statement was really the only piece of evidence that the reporter offered as to which side was winning the spin wars. Were internal polls showing a big swing in public opinion against Democrats? If so, the article did not report on them.
I am not saying that the public was or was not turning against the Democrats—as I noted above, I was among the many people who knew all along that this might go badly for them—but it was truly puzzling to read an entire news analysis article in which so little actual reporting supported the broad claim of a big loss for the Democrats.
Also interesting (in a depressing way) was an article by a Post reporter, who wrote a column taking as a given that it was important to understand what had gone wrong with the Democrats’ “failed shutdown gambit.” Even worse, that article appeared under the headline, “Seven Takeaways from the Failed Democratic Government Shutdown.”
I realize that writers do not generally write their own headlines, but to some degree that is the point. Not just these two reporters but their headline-writing editors had readily signed off on the idea that the Democrats had lost, and lost badly.
And it was worse than that, because The Post’s headline even called it a “Democratic Government Shutdown,” which is at the very least a contested characterization (especially given the five Republican votes against the spending bill.) Even though that newspaper also carried a compelling op-ed explaining that the real villains in the story are Ryan and McConnell, the news side was telling the public that the Democrats were to blame, that the Democrats knew that they were losing, and that everything from this point forward is damage control.
To be sure, part of this assessment was based on the negative reaction from some of the Democrats themselves, especially liberal activists who were incensed at not winning everything right away. Even so, it was more than a bit surprising to see how quickly and unambiguously the big, supposed-liberal newspapers condemned the Democrats as losers.
The Rules for Democrats and Republicans Are Different
People who recall the 2016 election might remember that the mainstream press was frequently criticized for operating under implicit “Clinton rules.” This was the phenomenon by which news items regarding Hillary Clinton that were either non-news or that seemed initially newsworthy but turned out to be entirely innocent were somehow presented as nefarious and damaging.
One good example of this was former congressman Anthony Weiner and his disintegrating marriage to Clinton aide Huma Abedin. As one sensible reporter for Slate explained at the time, a Times political reporter was doing everything possible to say that Weiner would be a potential political liability of Clinton. Why? Not because he should be, but because it would be “hard to argue” that Republicans should not bring him up.
As I argued at that time and in an election post mortem, there was a pronounced tendency for reporters at the top papers to take an especially negative position when reporting on Clinton. Although it is true to a lesser extent, Democrats as a whole also see this kind of asymmetric treatment, even from the reporters and editors whom Trump calls “the enemy of the American people.”
Again, I am not saying that Democrats are or are not going to pay a political price for their votes that resulted in this recent shutdown. Maybe they panicked too quickly, or maybe they correctly reconsidered their strategy. What I am worried about is the strong whiff of reporters and editors defaulting to their safest Democrats-were-outmaneuvered memes.
This matters, of course, because the Democrats will be in the spotlight again soon when the next spending bill is up for a vote. If the press has already pre-judged them as hapless bumblers, then the only remaining leverage that the Democrats have will effectively be gone. That will be bad, and not just for the Dreamers and those who care about them.