As we enter today the second month of the shutdown, it’s time to recall the 2011 words of Mike Lofgren, who spent 28 years as a Republican aide on Capitol Hill before leaving the party and retiring from his job. You may be sitting there thinking that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have the upper hand—and they do—and that the polls look great for the Democrats—and they do. But you have to bear in mind a key point: Democrats want the government to reopen and work. Republicans do not. And Republicans, therefore, might be more patient about all this than the polls would suggest.
Let’s go back to 2011. The final, I-want-a-divorce event for Lofgren was the debt-ceiling fight that year—the first time in the country’s history that a political party (guess which one?) decided to make specific, hostage-taker-like demands in exchange for giving the president its votes to increase the debt ceiling.
This sickened Lofgren to the point that he couldn’t take it anymore, so he quit and wrote a long piece about it all that got more than a million views. The aha paragraph, for my money, was this one:
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
This is who they are. It’s who they were in 2011 when Lofgren was writing, and Republicans were shocked, shocked about the deficit (they care about the deficit when a Democrat is president, you see). Their action actually increased U.S. borrowing costs and led to the budget “sequestration” deal that everyone’s forgotten about but that we’re still living with today, which cuts domestic discretionary spending by billions every year.
Meanwhile, of course, the Republicans have increased the deficit with their 2017 tax bill, because that's what they do when they’re in power, so that they can a) give more money to rich people and b) get ready for the next time there’s a Democratic president and they can start screaming, “My God, look at that deficit!”
So it’s who they were then, and it’s who they are today. They’re in no rush to end the shutdown. Yes, they’re paying a price for it in the polls, but so far, that price is kind of abstract and remote. They know in the back of their minds what they knew in 2011 during the debt crisis that they manufactured, and what they’ve known during previous government shutdowns: In the long run, when the government looks like it’s being incompetent and stupid, it’s going to do damage to the party that cares about government. And, of course, to the reputation of government itself.
Lofgren offered another sharp insight into the modern Republican mind in that 2011 piece: “Everyone knows that in a hostage situation, the reckless and amoral actor has the negotiating upper hand over the cautious and responsible actor because the latter is actually concerned about the life of the hostage, while the former does not care.”
This, unfortunately, describes where we are right now. The Republicans don’t care about the 800,000 furloughed workers. Oh, as individuals, they may care about certain actual people in their districts and states. But as a party, they don’t care about those workers. It’s not in the party’s DNA to care. They’re just bureaucrats; a bunch of time-servers milking the public teat. The country and world are better off without them.
And that means—and every Democrat and liberal should understand this—that Republicans will probably hold out longer here than you’d expect. One more time: If government looks incompetent, it’s no skin off their nose. That hurts Democrats.
And this leads to my one fear about all this politically, which is that the Democrats may ultimately blink first here because they have a conscience about the 800,000. They’re concerned about the life of the hostage. Congressional Republicans aren’t.
And Donald Trump isn’t. Those federal employees are a near-total abstraction to him, when he isn’t outright defining them as the enemy.
What Trump cares about is proving what a great deal-maker Trump is, about not getting beaten by a “girl” (and Nancy Pelosi is running rings around him right now), and about not ending up in the position of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh telling the MAGA-lytes that he’s a fraud and it’s all over.
He’s the president of the United States, but he’s almost like a bystander here. Nobody on Capitol Hill of either party cares very much about his wall one way or the other. Oh, Republicans would like to get some money for it, because they like to beat Democrats and because a win on wall funding keeps the base happy.
But for most congressional Republicans, certainly for Mitch McConnell, this isn’t mainly about the border wall. This is another battle in the long-running war on government. An attempt to sabotage it, to use Lofgren’s verb. They may lose this battle, as indeed they lost the debt-ceiling battle in public opinion terms. But if they can do some harm to the Democrats too, they figure they’ll win the long-term war over government.
That’s the party we’re dealing with here.