How Democrats lost the shutdown fight

What on Earth were they thinking?

Senate Democrats.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

For the second time in a little over four years, the minority party in the Senate managed to grind the federal government to a halt. And for the second time in a little over four years, the minority party in the Senate has conceded an embarrassing defeat, having won nothing for its trouble.

When Republicans shuttered the government over Ted Cruz's quixotic ObamaCare defunding effort in 2013, the party got nothing but egg on its face. The same is true today with regard to Democrats' puzzling shutdown standoff over immigration.

Democrats threatened a government shutdown as leverage to force the White House to surrender its positions on immigration policy and approve a clean legislative version of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which will end in March unless Congress creates the program through statute. President Trump, who gave DACA six months to live via executive fiat last fall, has already signaled that he wants to approve a constitutionally sound version of DACA, as long as he gets funding for his border security priorities, especially a border barrier or "wall."

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Republican leadership in Congress didn't want to bow to Democrats' DACA demands as part of the budget process, so tried offering another concession instead. The short-term budget first passed last week by the GOP House provided a six-year funding authorization for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), this time without any pay-for cuts in other programs that had held up an earlier effort on the program. Democrats refused to take the deal. That is, until they discovered they had no choice.

All of this probably sounds terribly familiar. It should. The shutdown in 2013, led by Cruz, attempted to force the Obama administration into agreeing to dismantle ObamaCare. Cruz and his allies insisted that they could use the power of the purse to get Obama to undo his signature legislative accomplishment by holding the rest of the government hostage.

This was never going to work. And indeed, Obama responded by making the shutdown as ugly as possible while the media focused on the hopeless nature of Cruz's effort. Several days later, Republicans caught a break when the embarrassingly incompetent rollout of the Affordable Care Act began eclipsing the spectacle of veterans getting blocked from the memorials that paid tribute to their service. But had it not been for the massive scope of Obama administration incompetence and its endurance in news cycles long after Senate Republicans surrendered on the shutdown, Cruz's quest might have done real damage to the GOP's midterm efforts in 2014.

This time around, Democrats' parliamentary posturing might really doom progressive dreams of a "blue wave" later this year. The American public turned out not to care more about the "DREAMers" than sick children or functional government. Thanks to lots of grandstanding by Senate Democrats over their "resistance" to Trump, their attempts to blame Republicans for their filibuster in the Senate didn't work out as well as they'd hoped. The media mostly reported that Democrats had blocked the Senate's budget efforts, not that Republicans had voted to shut down the government. Democrats struggled to sell a shutdown based on an issue that had nothing to do with funding, one on which Democrats' opponents appeared willing to negotiate as long as it wasn't through a shutdown.

By Monday morning, the jig was up. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reiterated that he would bring a DACA bill up for a vote if an agreement with the White House didn't take place before then, but only on the condition that Democrats didn't shut down the government again. Having forced Chuck Schumer to unilaterally disarm, most of his caucus went along with a three-week version of the same deal that was on the table when the shutdown began. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) lamented while being one of the handful to oppose the short-term budget, their holdout resulted in "not much" for Democrats.

That's putting it mildly. Before the shutdown had collapsed, even hardline Democrat Rep. Luis Gutierrez openly offered to fund Trump's border wall in order to reopen the government, saying he was "ready to pay the ransom." Raul Grijalva, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wistfully added, "I thought [Democrats] had more leverage than we did." That was the expectation they set with their activist base, whose help they will desperately need in the midterms, and the letdown may cost them dearly in the long run.

The lesson here is that voters don't like having their government held hostage, especially for non-budgetary reasons. Most voters don't immerse themselves in politics and its tribalist tendencies. They expect government to function properly where it's necessary, to stay out of their lives where it's not, and for elected officials to do their jobs. Government shutdowns over issues unrelated to the budget violate all of those expectations.

Now that both parties have humiliated themselves over this tactic, perhaps leaders in both parties will rip that page out of their playbooks.

Editor's note: This article originally misstated Raul Grijalva's position on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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