There is no denying that the ongoing partial government shutdown — now the longest in U.S. history — has taken a toll on Americans. Federal employees have missed paychecks, vital government services are unavailable and confidence in a dysfunctional government is strained to a new level.
The crucial political question, then, is that of who will bear the blame. Thus far, Democratic leaders have been, if anything, enjoying the gridlock. Donald Trump has faced broad disapproval over the matter, with 60 percent of Americans placing responsibility on the president. Better yet, Democrats get to watch while Trump’s signature campaign promise, a wall across the entirety of the country’s southern border, becomes less and less of a realistic possibility.
Naturally, congressional Democrats would never admit that they are happy about a shutdown — they’ll continue to weep publicly for their suffering constituents, playing the role of the courageous defenders of the downtrodden. Some of them may even genuinely regret the damage being caused, but it’s impossible to deny that on the whole, the Democratic party has benefitted politically from the catastrophe.
Still, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democratic leaders are not invulnerable. If they get careless with their messaging, they too could be consumed by this political conflagration.
Until now, Democrats have appeared more willing than Trump to compromise on a budget deal; before this whole thing started, they had even reached a compromise deal with senate Republicans to pass a funding bill which did not include money for a border wall. Trump refused to sign that bill even after Republicans agreed to it, appearing stubborn and unable to compromise even with his own party.
More recently, however, Pelosi and Schumer have been hardening their stance, publicly admitting that they will refuse to consider any deal which Trump proposes if it includes a border wall in any form. This has been the Democrats’ stance all along, of course, but leaders need to be careful in stating it. While the “never compromise with Trump” message resonates well with the Democratic base, strategically Pelosi and Schumer are doing themselves a disservice by making statements which moderates may find abrasive or overly partisan.
At this point, Trump’s approval ratings are probably not going to fall much lower. The 34 percent of Americans who continue to stand by the president’s job performance are most likely his base of enthusiastic supporters, and no political attacks from Pelosi or Schumer are ever going to sway the majority of them. Trump is at rock bottom, and Democrats need to be transitioning from offense to defense. They have sufficiently hurt the president, now how do they protect their own positions through the rest of this crisis?
This shutdown is going to have to end somehow, and Congress actually has a clear path to making that happen: override Trump’s veto in the senate to pass a compromise bill. Thus far Senate Majority Leader and turtle Mitch McConnell and other senate Republicans have stayed out of the spotlight on the shutdown. Democrats have mostly let them do so by focusing all of their efforts on attacking Trump, and it is time to force the issue by shifting that pressure to the Senate.
If Democrats in the House and Senate focus all of their efforts on forcing McConnell into the spotlight on the issue, they may just come out the victors in this deathmatch.