No modern federal government shutdown has ever lasted more than a few weeks, and they typically end without much fanfare on the terms of one partisan faction or another. In the interim, those factions do battle for narrative control over who’s to blame for political dysfunction, on the theory that the losers of public opinion will see their leverage in the underlying policy dispute disappear, and perhaps suffer longer-term consequences for their misconduct.
That battle rages tediously this weekend, amid the most recent shutdown, on cable television and social media—the only two places in the physical universe where more heat makes darkness deeper.
Because a bill to temporarily fund the government passed the Republican-controlled House on a party-line basis Thursday, but failed to clear the Senate Friday, this unenlightening debate about who’s to blame tends to turn on different manipulations of vote tallies. Late Friday night, 45 Republicans and five Democrats voted to advance the House bill, well short of the 60 votes supermajority required to end debate on legislation in the Senate.
Thus, two things are true. First, Republicans can’t fund the government on their own—they need Democratic votes, which means negotiating in good faith with Democrats on funding legislation that both parties can support.
Second, this funding bill would have passed but for the filibuster, which, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has become routine.
Together, these facts make it impossible look at votes totals and find empirical truth about which party’s machinations lead to the outcome before us. The real source of the conflict long precedes the legislative angling that actually triggered the shutdown, and it began when President Trump terminated DACA, the deferred action program for Dreamers, brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Here and there, Trump has claimed to harbor real empathy for Dreamers. But everything that happened before and since he rescinded their protections gives the lie to the idea that he is deeply conflicted. Trump is at best too big a dupe to make decisions he believes to be in the public interest. More likely, he wants immigration authorities to deport Dreamers and is too chickenshit to say so publicly. Either way, the shutdown stems from the ambiguity his failures have created.
As I laid out recently, before Trump terminated DACA, Republican state attorneys general sued to block it in court. Before that, House Republicans—with the full support of the Senate Republican leadership—blocked a bipartisan 2013 bill that would have legalized Dreamers as part of a broader plan to reform the immigration system. Before that, Senate Republicans filibustered a 2010 version of the DREAM Act, which would have obviated the need for DACA in the first place.
After Trump terminated DACA, he promised to revisit the issue if Congress did not reach a solution for Dreamers. At a televised meeting with congressional leaders of both parties last week, he promised to sign any immigration deal that combined protection for Dreamers with specific border security and immigration-flow reforms. When a bipartisan group of senators presented him with a blueprint that did just that, a white nationalist cadre on the right of the Republican Party convinced him that the deal would allow too many black people from what he called “shithole countries” into the U.S., and Trump rejected it.
On Friday, Trump reached a similar agreement in principle with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, which held for less than 12 hours, before White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who is also an immigration restrictionist, pulled the rug out from under it.
SCHUMER-TRUMP TICK TOCK, FOR SERIOUS: Back and forth over the course of the day ends with John Kelly calling Schumer to complain the framework Schumer & Trump agreed to at lunch was too liberal for GOP
GOP says, need POTUS to make deal. Then seems to say: POTUS deal no good. Hm.
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) January 20, 2018
All of this evidence points to a deep hostility to Dreamers among Trump and his supporters in Congress, who have been allowed, by the congressional leadership, to define the Republican Party’s immigration agenda.
But even if Trump and Republican leaders earnestly feel for the Dreamers, they are too incompetent or cynical to act upon their beliefs.
I’ve never seen such a flawed negotiation. No one is in charge. Speaker concerned about his right flank, Senate R’s waiting for POTUS, POTUS changes from moment to moment. No one is sure if they have leverage or are over a barrel. It’s as bad as it looks.
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) January 20, 2018
Trump in particular is out at sea. He is not meaningfully in charge of his own administration. If he were, the shutdown could have been avoided in one of two ways: Trump, being president, could have overruled his ethnonationalist advisers and kept his word, at which point a government funding bill that included protection for Dreamers would have passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities; or Trump, being president, could have been honest about his substantive view that Dreamers, despite knowing no other country but this one, should be removed from the United States.
I don’t think it would be a great outcome. But if Trump and Republican leaders stepped forward and confessed “we don’t support legalizing Dreamers, and as long as we control the government, we won’t let that happen,” the Democrats would be powerless to stop them. The impasse would probably end, Dreamers would be driven into the shadows for a time, but at least the truth would drive proper accountability.
Trump refuses to do, or is incapable of doing, either of these things—and as long as that’s true, the lack of consensus that precipitated the shutdown and is driving the blame game on cable news will persist.
How will that blame game shake out? I think it remains likely that the public will default to holding Republicans responsible, if not for the specific reasons laid out here. Republicans control every branch of government; the Republican brand is shutdown. These are powerful heuristics, and I believe they are what’s driving early poll data, which suggests most people pin this on Trump, the Republican Congress, or both.
But the longer the shutdown persists, the more clouded that perception might grow. In the Trump era, Republicans have overwhelmingly run public relations through right wing outlets. Trump’s prime directive is to keep his supporters consolidated. As his shambling presidency has hardened opposition to him, Republicans have generally sought to prevent the damage from bleeding into their base by peddling and celebrating propaganda.
That is emphatically not how Republicans are running their shutdown spin campaign. Republican operatives aren’t even bothering to spin conservative media, which is parroting tendentious nonsense without needing to be spun. They are spinning mainstream outlets, and with some success. The reach of their talking points will thus be greater now than in other Trump-era controversies, and that might move the needle of public opinion in a perilous direction for Democrats and Dreamers alike.