President Trump and his Republican allies are losing the fight over the longest government shutdown in American history. Badly. That is undeniable to anyone who can read polls, which show the president's approval dropping sharply and the public blaming Trump for the fiasco.
For Democrats, buttressed by the voters' clear preference for their strategy, this fight has become about much more than the Mexican border wall. For the first time in years, they feel like they might have an opportunity to break the GOP's decade-long addiction to using the federal government's basic operations as leverage to resolve policy disagreements.
Both voters and the leadership of the Democratic Party see this sordid episode for exactly what it is: attempted extortion. Republicans couldn't get the wall built when they controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, because the president was too stupid to take yes for an answer. So following their midterm drubbing, Trump capriciously shut down the government, thinking he could checkmate incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by using an unpopular tactic to achieve an unpopular policy goal that the voters had just rejected. And with his ongoing refusal to offer Democrats something that would get them to the table, Trump continues to prove he cares more about the wall's political value than about getting it built.
How can you tell Trump isn't serious about making a deal? Last year, panicked that the Trump administration was going to start deporting DREAMers — undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — en masse, Democrats offered terms that lopsidedly favored Trump's position. They offered $25 billion in wall funding in exchange for a long path to citizenship for the DREAMers and new restrictions on family reunification.
Egged on by immigration hardliners, Trump scoffed at the offer, then proceeded to decisively lose a branch of government to his critics. After a destructive, economically ruinous month-long standoff, he consulted exclusively with allies, and on Saturday offered a crummier deal (basically the BRIDGE Act, which contains no path to citizenship at all, as well as massive new restrictions on asylum) to a much-empowered adversary.
Democrats are having none of it.
Imagine trying to sell your house and someone offers you $250,000 for it. Thinking you could do better, you say no. Then the market crashes, your crib bleeds out half its value, and now you decide to call up the prospective buyers and tell them you'll accept no less than $300,000. That's the Trump shutdown strategy in a nutshell.
If Trump really wanted the wall, if he truly believed that this dumb stunt — which lacks even bare majority support from the general public — would fix a serious national problem, he would offer a clean DREAM Act in exchange for the wall funding. Doing so would force Democrats to choose between achieving a long-sought policy goal and the principle of not negotiating with terrorists. But Trump, accustomed to ripping people off and getting away with it, only offers and believes in one-sided agreements.
A deal involves the exchange of value between two parties. The doomed immigration compromises of 2007 and 2013, whatever you think of them as policy, were examples of what real bargaining between equals looks like. Democrats signed on to things that many of them didn't believe in, including the wasteful securitization of the border, in return for provisions that Republican immigration hardliners really didn't want, including a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.
The immolation of the 2007 deal at the hands of Senate Republicans marked the beginning of this long, nightmarish period we now find ourselves in, during which Republicans have refused to negotiate in good faith about much of anything. The only thing they ever offer is to let the hostage use the bathroom. The captive never gets freed.
For more than 10 years, Republicans have talked themselves into believing they can get something for nothing. Former President Obama spent ages fruitlessly seeking the contours of a grand bargain to bring the debt ceiling and spending standoffs to an end, yet Republicans never once were willing meet Democrats even a quarter of the way. They wanted to balance the budget exclusively with spending cuts, just like they wanted an immigration "compromise" that consisted only of fencing, enforcement, and deportation. And now Trump is offering Democrats a "deal" that gives them nothing but temporary relief in the DACA crisis — which he caused in the first place. Like a mobster extracting cash payments from a local restaurant, all he is offering is protection from himself.
Pelosi is taking a hard pass. From the beginning of the current crisis, she has understood that there is only one way to put an end to these ransom games until at least 2020, and that's to humiliate Trump and to force him to retreat. This is the tactic Obama belatedly discovered during the shutdown crisis of 2013.
Back then, House Republicans shut down the government for 16 days as they attempted to force Obama to delay implementation of his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The public immediately blamed the GOP and never wavered. Republicans weren't seeking compromise — they were attempting an extra-systemic, hostile takeover of the policymaking process. To return to the analogy, it was as if the buyers offered the seller zero dollars and then pitched a tent in the kitchen. It was a tremendously dimwitted gambit, the absurdity of which was obvious from the get-go.
Obama had a very simple strategy to deal with the extremists who forced that shutdown: He told them to go pound sand until they caved. "Go out there and win an election," he told them. Blame was not difficult for most people to assign — while ObamaCare was still being rolled out, it was by then over three years old. Even those with little interest in policy were able to grasp that one party should not hold the functioning of American government hostage to litigate policy disputes that should either be negotiated between the branches or settled one way or another by elections.
It's sort of mind-boggling that they don't understand this, but every time Republican extremists plunge a knife into some painstakingly constructed compromise, they are forfeiting policy gains they might otherwise have locked in. And every day that they refuse to govern the country, they increase the odds of handing total power back to Democrats, who are not going to be in a forgiving mood.
Yet here we are again. What Republicans should really be asking themselves this morning is whether they can name a single substantive thing that these tactics have actually achieved. The country is running trillion dollar deficits. What Republicans derisively call "entitlement" spending has not been meaningfully curtailed. Voters in deep red states are clamoring for Medicaid expansions. While Republicans were losing interest in governing the country and falling madly in love with politics as an empty spectacle, the center of policy gravity in this country stampeded to the left. Republicans lost America's youngest voters by a 37-point margin in November, which presages imminent political cataclysm.
For now, Senate Republicans aren't wavering, and Democrats look even more united in their resolve not to be drawn into the president's elaborate protection racket. The longer President Trump keeps the government shuttered, the more likely he is to invite real tragedy or economic ruin. And if he thinks the blame is going to land anywhere but on his desk, he's even more delusional than we thought.