Both Sides Are Not to Blame For the Shutdown

Watch almost any news show or listen to any radio program and you’ll hear the same refrain: why can’t both sides put away their petty differences and reopen the government? Pundits and journalists express frustration that no deal seems to be in the works, and both Republicans and Democrats are painted as equally petulant children. At best, the situation is presented as a matter of unreasonable polarization, in which both President Trump and Democratic leaders see more advantage in looking strong to their own base than in giving the ground necessary to end the collective pain of a shutdown.

All of this is hogwash.

The current standoff over the shutdown–now moving into a record-breaking fifth week–is less of a negotation than it is a hostage crisis. Donald Trump is less a politician bargaining for a deal, and more a stick-up man out of time and trapped by the cops, determined to hurt innocents rather than give himself up. And Mitch McConnell is his willing accomplice.

President Trump feels that he must have his precious wall to hold onto his base, which he understands is less under his own sway than under that of conservative infotainment personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. But Trump has had many opportunities over the last two years, with better leverage and a more favorable Republican congress, to fund his wall. He refused to make the deals necessary. That’s mostly because more intelligent immigration-obsessed conservatives understood that if the goal is for white supremacists to Make America White Again, trading DACA protections for a wall is a bad deal: the wall doesn’t actually do anything useful, but DACA protections do allow a significant number of mostly non-white immigrants to remain in the country. Also, the wall itself is fairly unpopular, a fact that led to skittishness from some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Now, with Democrats in control of the House, and enjoying the high ground in public opinion, Trump feels this is his last chance to actually get any part of his wall funded. He may–or may not–be right. But now the president would have to give up even more than he refused to do before in exchange. Not only would this make him look weak, but the conservative infotainment complex would not be fooled: they would certainly claim that Trump was conned into granting “amnesty” without getting much of value in exchange, just as their revisionist history says that’s what happened to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

In any case, there is almost certainly a deal Democrats would be willing to make in exchange for wall funding outside the context of a shutdown. No one on the left wants to see Democrats cave on the issue, but I think most would grudgingly accept a trade of perceived equal value if Trump is truly insistent on it. That’s how negotiations work.

But Trump wants his wall without giving much of anything in exchange. So he’s taking the government hostage to get it. That’s a heist, not a negotiation.

If Democrats give him the loot bag and the helicopter this time, he won’t hesitate to do it again. So there’s no compelling reason for simply being “the bigger adult” and giving the petulant child whatever he wants until the Mueller report drops. The stakes are too high. At some point, Republicans in the Senate will need to realize that the damage being done to their brand and the country is too great to allow Trump to keep dragging them through the mud.

Until that day, it would be nice if the press would describe this hostage crisis as it really is, rather than pretending that both sides are simply too unreasonable to come to terms.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.