The Scariest Thing About This Shutdown: Both Sides Think They Can Win

The Democrats have four or five good arguments on their side. But so do the Republicans. And Donald Trump isn’t exactly known for backing down from a fight. Settle in.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The federal government shutdown is the inexorable result of a conflicting interpretation of the state of America—exactly one year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Is this a red-state America where Republicans control everything, where Donald Trump just passed landmark tax reform, and where the wind is at the back of the GOP? Or is this an America where Democrats are about to swamp Republicans in mid-term elections, where a wildly unpopular president is currently embroiled in scandals having to do with porn stars and vile words about the “coalition of the ascendant,” and where Special Counsel Robert Mueller is closing in on Trump’s collusion with Russia?

Which reality is…real? We probably won’t really know the answer until the November midterms—which is one of the many reasons that 2018 might make 2017 seem tame.

What we do know is this: When one person or party is clearly dominant or on the rise, the weaker person or party generally submits, concedes, and acquiesces. But when two sides believe they are winning, clashes become almost inevitable. They don’t back down. You get a standoff.

This, in a nut shell, is the reason the government shut down early Saturday morning: Not only do both parties believe they are on the side of the angels—both sides are betting they can win politically.

You don’t have to look hard for examples to buttress this point. From Saturday morning’s New York Times:

“Senate Democrats own the Schumer Shutdown,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement. “Tonight, they put politics above our national security, military families, and our country’s ability to serve all Americans.”

Democrats, calling it the “Trump shutdown,” countered that Republicans were responsible for the management of a government in their control.

Democrats might blink, if only because it is they who are playing on unfamiliar terrain. In the past, they have suggested that shutdowns kill people.

The Democrats have reason to believe they can win the public relations battle.

“Every American knows the Republican Party controls the White House, the Senate, the House,” Schumer said. “It’s their job to keep the government open.” It’s kind of hard to argue with this logic—unless you consider the fact that even if every Republican in the Senate voted to fund the government, Democrats would have still shut it down. But these are the kinds of details that might get lost, anyway. In 2013, Trump suggested the president is responsible for a shutdown.

Second, there is always an assumption that the GOP—the party that occupies the anti- (or small) government brand is to blame for shutdowns. Third, as Michael Tomasky points out, Trump lacks the kind of message discipline needed to drive a message such as selling the “Schumer Shutdown.” And lastly, Democrats probably believe that fighting for DREAMers is smart long-term politics—even if the short-term blame does partially fall on them.

On the other hand, Republicans believe they can win this fight. First, of course, it’s hard to get past the actual fact that a Democratic filibuster was the impetus for the shutdown. Second, in the continuing resolution Republicans offered to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for six years. Democrats have (for now, at least) rejected that—which is to say they might get blamed for not funding this important program. Republicans can also point out that, although fixing DACA is important, thanks to a court injunction, it is not an imminent issue. As liberal columnist Bill Scher writes in Politico Magazine, “even for the group hit hardest by Trump’s order, the immediate urgency has dissipated.” 

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The White House also clearly believes that Democrats are making a mistake by inconveniencing American citizens for the sake of illegal immigrants. “We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. This one strikes me as unnecessarily divisive and risky, but this is the direction they are going. It’s also a prime example of my final point about why Republicans think things might be different this time around, which is this: Donald Trump isn’t a normal Republican. He isn’t going to say or do the things a normal Republican president would say or do during a shutdown—which means the rules and maxims governing shutdowns (including the one about how Republicans get blamed) might be out the window.

Of course, it’s possible that we will avert a full-fledged knock-down, drag-out fight over this. In many fights, nobody really wins, and both sides lose a bit. That might be the case here—and it may be that both sides are able to save face by coming to an agreement over the weekend.

But as you can see, each party has four of five pretty strong and compelling arguments for why they are going to win this fight. As long as both sides continue to believe that they are going to win, don’t expect either side to make any concessions. When will this standoff end? Democrats might blink, if only because it is they who are playing on unfamiliar terrain. In the past, they have suggested that shutdowns kill people. Will that old muscle memory make it hard to justify and sustain a shutdown—or will this just be another example of how where you stand depends on where you sit?

Whether both parties are able to save face, or not, it will only happen when one side gets cold feet and decides it’s more prudent to back down. And that doesn’t sound like the Donald Trump that I know—which is one of the reasons he won the Republican nomination in the first place.

One year later, amid all the scandals and tweets, he is still giving his base what they said they wanted: “But at least he fights!”