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Why Trump Is Dragging Out the Shutdown — Even Though It’s Unpopular

5 minute read

By any normal political logic, the partial government shutdown should be long over by now.

Polls show that more people blame President Donald Trump than congressional Democrats for the ongoing crisis, while the president’s national approval rating continues to tank. Meanwhile, Trump is no closer to securing funding for a border wall with Mexico — the sticking point that led to the shutdown and a goal that remains consistently unpopular among a majority of Americans.

Results like these would have led most past presidents to call off the fight. But Trump’s intransigence is illustrative of his larger political philosophy, which has often hinged on performing for the Republican base rather than gauging the mood of the country. This strategy has worked for Trump in the past, but may provide an opportunity for Democrats as they take the the House in 2019 and prepare to face off against him in 2020.

Trump’s rapid rise in politics has been the result, in part, of his willingness to embrace political tribalism. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, he made very little effort to reach out to Democrats and encouraged purity tests among his fellow Republicans. In November, Trump responded to the results of the midterm election in which his party lost the House of Representatives by becoming more entrenched: instead of expressing contrition or pledging to work with Democrats, he mocked the moderate Republicans who lost on the grounds that they did not embrace him enough.

Trump’s position on the shutdown is a continuation of that same strategy: he is placing his political prospects squarely on the loyalty of the Republican base. In essence, he’s never stopped running the formative race of his political career: the 2016 Republican primary.

By that measure, Trump’s obstinance this week, despite declining approval in the polls, makes perfect sense. Nearly a week into the shutdown, polls of registered Republicans show overwhelming support for Trump’s handling of the shutdown, and his approval rating among the GOP remains a sky-high 89 percent. Meantime, more than three-fourths of Republicans favor building the border wall.

Trump has also publicly embraced his role as stubborn fighter for the Republican hardline. Under normal political logic, presidents facing a potential shutdown might attempt to pin the blame on the other party. Trump, instead, announced that he would be “proud to shut down the government” in front of TV cameras in a White House meeting.

And when seeking to end a shutdown gracefully, a typical president might have looked for ground to compromise. So far, Trump’s biggest concession has been to suggest that he would be open to “steel slats” instead of an actual wall, a suggestion that addresses approximately none of the Democrats’ concerns over a border wall.

In this way, Trump’s decision to double-down on the shutdown is reminiscent of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s push to close the government in 2013 over the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. That move raised Cruz’s profile among conservatives — but ultimately proved disastrous for Republican leaders in Congress.

The same may be true of Trump. In 2019, Democratic lawmakers, and especially those in the U.S. House, will be playing a national political game. While they’ll attempt to thwart the Trump agenda where possible, they’ll also remain focused on persuadable voters in battleground districts and states in the 2020 eletions.

The shutdown fight allows the Democrats to reflect the desires of the majority of Americans — who want neither the shutdown to continue nor a border wall — while appealing to the Democratic base by appearing to “stand up” to Trump. Polls show that congressional Democrats’ supporters, as well as the independents they hope to keep on their side in future elections, generally agree with ending the shutdown and refusing to fund a border wall.

“The President said more than 25 times he wanted a shutdown and unfortunately, he has unnecessarily caused one because he has chosen to ignore any viable proposal that would secure the border and pass both the House and Senate, including those that Leaders Pelosi and Schumer supported,” Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said in a statement Thursday. “Instead, the President continues to push proposals to fund the ineffective and expensive wall, which he knows can’t pass the Senate.”

Congressional aides on both sides of the aisle seem resigned to the fact that the shutdown will last at least until Jan. 3, when Democrats will officially assume control of the House of Representatives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office has said that the upper chamber would vote before then on a deal if there is an agreement, but noted that the Democrats have not even given the White House a counter-offer.

If the shutdown lasts through the new year, Democrats will introduce a bill to re-open the government, but negotiations are ongoing about what that would look like. And as long as Trump and Democrats are using different strategies, the fight will likely be a draw, with both sides claiming victory by their own metrics.

But the real test will come when the next fight begins in 2020. If the normal political rules apply, the Democratic nominee should find Trump easy to beat. But if his bet on political tribalism pays off, that may become the new normal.

With Alana Abramson in Washington

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