Democrats Can Win the Government Shutdown If They Don’t Back Down

It’s all about message discipline and ‘Trump’ and ‘message discipline’ don’t exactly belong in the same sentence.


Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Three quick questions: When was the last time the government shut down, how long did it last, and which side won?

Three quick answers: It was October 2013, largely over Republican efforts to defund Obamacare (it started a few days after Ted Cruz recited “Green Eggs and Ham” on the Senate floor). It lasted 16 days. And according to the polls, the Democrats and President Obama mostly won—both parties took a hit, but Republicans took the bigger hit.

I doubt you remembered any of the above, except for the Dr. Seuss part. And there were probably all kinds of predictions that these histrionics were going to kill the Republicans in the next year’s elections—in which, of course, they went on to pick up 13 House seats and nine Senate seats and totally dominate gubernatorial and state legislative elections.

In other words, it’s hard to say how these things will play out. Right now, the Senate Democrats are out on a ledge. It sure looks like they’re going to stand fast on the Dreamers issue. There seems to be a slim chance that the Senate today will pass a three- or four-day patch to give negotiators more time to find a compromise, but then of course the House would have to agree to that by midnight.

So let’s assume there’s a shutdown. What happens, politically? Who wins shutdowns is all about message discipline. It’s slightly depressing that it’s that simple, but it is.

And what are their messages? If there is a shutdown tonight, the Republicans will say: The Democrats shut the government down over illegal immigrants. The Democrats’ line will be: The Republicans have control of government, and they drove us into a ditch.

History would suggest to us that the Republican message might be stronger. I mean, illegal immigrants! Every legislative effort to do anything about undocumented aliens for the last 15 years has died on the same hill of ranting, xenophobic, nativist fury. Lou Dobbs Hill. Hasn’t been a winning issue.

But history doesn’t always stand still. First of all, the Lou Dobbs attitude was never a majority attitude—it was the attitude of a passionate minority that is dramatically over-represented in Congress. Second, with respect to the Dreamers, the kids who were born here, public attitudes are a lot more compassionate. Quinnipiac did a poll last week and found that 79 percent said Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the United States and apply for citizenship to just 11 percent who said they shouldn’t be allowed to stay. Subgroups: Democrats 92-3, Republicans 64-20, independents 77-12.

It’s hard to get much more one-sided than that (except on background checks, another issue on which the GOP majority boldly represents 10 percent of America). Besides, remember this: Congress wouldn’t be having to deal with this at all if Trump and Jeff Sessions hadn’t rescinded the DACA program last September.

Remember that one? Trump left it to Sessions to make the announcement, and Sessions said not merely that Barack Obama had overstepped his legal authority in promulgating DACA, but that it was bad policy. That suggested that the Trump administration was against the whole idea, even though at the same time, Trump was tweeting away about how much he loved the Dreamers. Democrats could do worse, by the way, than remind Americans of Sessions’ involvement in this mess: That Q-poll found that Americans disapprove of him by 47-14 percent.

Which brings us back to message discipline. “Trump” and “message discipline” don’t exactly belong in the same sentence (although “Trump” and “discipline” apparently do belong in the same sentence). Trump’s tweets in the past few days have been all over the place. Thursday’s tweet about the CHIP program made it obvious he had no idea what his administration’s position was.

This carries the mind back to 1996-97 and the most famous shutdown in recent U.S. history. This one was over draconian domestic budget cuts the GOP wanted to push through. Bill Clinton said to them: I don’t care if I drop to 5 percent in the polls, I am not signing your bill. The shutdown started. The Republicans seemed to be winning the messaging war.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

In the middle of it, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. All the political leadership of the United States flew over to Israel on Air Force One as guests of the president. A few days later, at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with journalists, Newt Gingrich groused about how he never even got to see Clinton on the flight and had to suffer the indignity of exiting the plane through the rear door. The Daily News produced one of the most memorable tabloid covers of all time, showing Gingrich as a crying baby, and the messaging battle was lost. Gingrich later called it “the single most avoidable mistake” of his time as speaker.

Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan could maintain message discipline for two or three weeks. But Trump? Impossible. So let them defend a position that 11 percent of Americans support, and let Trump tweet this one day and that the next day. Chuck Schumer’s rolling the dice, but he’s playing against an incompetent house.