The subtle art of a government shutdown
President Trump didn’t respond to the so-called shutdown of the federal government in the way that the political class thought he should. He didn’t get personally involved in detailed negotiations to end the impasse and didn’t convey a sense of crisis to the American people. When all was said and done, this skirmish showed the dangers of underestimating President Trump and his ability to connect with voters on issues the political elites ignore. His approach worked because he instinctively understood the strategic situation far better than Senate Democrats, establishment Republicans and his other beltway critics.
First, the president recognized that the term “shutdown” is a dramatic overstatement of what really was going on. It’s true that the budget dispute created stress for government employees who were to be furloughed, but the overwhelming majority of government services continued uninterrupted. In fact, outside of the DC area, nobody really noticed any impact. If you “shut down the government” and nobody notices, that creates far bigger ideological problems for Democrats than Republicans. So, the president directed his Administration to minimize the impact of Congressional dysfunction on the American people. Second, the president understood that the fate of the Dreamers is only one part of a much larger immigration issue. As Clinton pollster Mark Penn has noted, the American people want an immigration deal that protects the Dreamers but also includes serious border security measures. Voters reject the open border policy espoused by many Democrats.
If Chuck Schumer’s party wants to protect the Dreamers, all they have to do is accept a border wall and other security measures. If they don’t, the president will happily bring the dispute to voters in November and the Republicans will likely pick up a few Senate seats. President Trump also understood the appeal of fighting back against politics as usual. Republican voters have varying degrees of discomfort with President Trump’s demeanor, but they love it when he fights the media and the political class.
Rather than cowering and seeking to appease the Washington Post and New York Times, the president brashly blamed the Democrats for whatever problems resulted. That attitude is something many Republican and independent voters can applaud. In practical terms, it’s likely to increase GOP enthusiasm as Election Day approaches.
I am not suggesting that President Trump has suddenly become popular with the American people. His approval ratings have rebounded a bit but remain low by historical standards. It is hard to imagine them moving significantly higher by November.
But it’s important to remember that most voters had an unfavorable view of the president on the day they elected him. A significant number didn’t believe he was qualified to be president but still thought he was preferable to Hillary Clinton.
That reality should haunt Democrats in the wake of the “shutdown” debacle. President Trump, dealmaker in chief, broke all the political class rules about how to handle the situation. And, in so doing, he highlighted some of the least attractive features of his opponents’ position. If he is able to keep it up, the Democrats may be at risk of once again making Republicans the lesser of two evils.