Opinion

By caving on the government shutdown, Democrats just made a profound mistake

In drawing a line then sheepishly erasing it, Democrats emboldened the president and his allies

Yesterday Democrats voted, inexplicably, to reopen the government, on basically the same terms offered to them Friday by a short-term House continuing resolution. Only 16 Senate Democrats held the line, including most of the party's serious 2020 contenders. On the bright side, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is now funded for six years, and Democrats have pocketed the truly worthless currency of a Mitch McConnell promise to hold an immigration vote next month. Maybe they can use it to refill the vending machines in the White House press room.

But the price was extraordinary — after prepping their activist base for a long shutdown fight, key party elites surrendered to fears that the White House was winning the messaging fight by holding CHIP hostage to capitulation. There was very little evidence in the existing polling that this was the case, but Senate Democrats panicked and wagered that the best move here was to protect vulnerable, red-state Democrats by taking CHIP off the table and fighting a pitched battle in February over DACA and only DACA.

Had that been a conscious strategy from the get-go, it would certainly have been defensible. Millions of children are now assured of health insurance coverage that was in jeopardy yesterday. But those of us who argued forcefully to keep the government shut down until Republicans came through with a real DACA fix were left feeling frustrated.

If Democrats were going to sign off on another short-term spending bill in exchange for CHIP, why on Earth didn't they just do that on Friday? What was gained by moving the deadline up seven days? CHIP would have been saved either way, without the embarrassing surrender just three days into the shutdown, long before any political pain had been felt by either party and before voters really knew that anything at all was amiss. The galling thing is that Democrats truly appeared to have an advantage, with polling suggesting voters would disproportionately blame Trump and the Republicans for shutting down the government over a program that has overwhelming, bipartisan public support.

And by drawing a line in the sand and then sheepishly erasing it, Democrats emboldened the president and his allies, made themselves look weak and feckless, and demoralized their base. But hurt feelings are not the real issue here. The overarching problem is that even if Democrats can get everyone in their caucus on board for another fight in February, their opponents on the other side of the aisle now have credible reason to believe that they are bluffing. And they can't be confident that Republicans won't link some other piece of unrelated but popular legislation to yet another short-term spending bill next month.

President Trump and his allies left no doubt about who they believe won this showdown. "As I have always said, once the government is funded my administration will work toward solving the problem of very unfair illegal immigration," the president said in a typically combative and childish statement designed to humiliate his adversaries. The president's decision to spend a rare weekend working instead of lounging around one of his resorts appears to have paid dividends.

It is not clear what kind of immigration compromise, if any, can make it through the House and Senate and also receive the president's signature. And that highlights what a profound mistake Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his allies made yesterday — they just handed Republicans another three weeks to pull any immigration compromise to the right.

The existing compromise legislation, proposed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), is already a terrible price to pay for saving the DREAMers. It begins the process of fundamentally restructuring American immigration policy along the policy lines long envisioned by the racists who have staged a takeover of the Republican Party, and redefines the United States as a place that is fundamentally hostile not just to unauthorized immigration, but to all forms of legal immigration as well. It reduces the number of immigrants allowed to legally migrate to the United States, significantly alters the diversity visa lottery program, and is the first step in an extraordinarily cruel policy plan to divide immigrants from their families. It is quite possibly the best deal that can be had as long as Republicans maintain their congressional majorities, but we may now never know exactly what Democrats could have extracted from their counterparts had they stood firm behind the clear public preference for DACA.

At the end of the day, DACA is the Democrats' biggest and most important piece of leverage in this fight, and it remains on the table. If they strategize properly, it is still a fight that can be won. But they are going to have to be willing to shut the government down for an extended period of time next month, to weather the charges of hypocrisy that will be leveled at them by their morally bankrupt opponents, and to make Republicans feel real political suffering.

The events of this weekend suggest that Democratic leaders simply do not have the stomach for this fight, despite all of their pre-shutdown theatrics. If that's because they think their advantage in congressional polling is substantial enough to allow them to coast to easy victories in November, they are sorely and tragically mistaken. If they think that a January court decision has granted the DREAMers a reprieve, they have underestimated the gratuitous mean-spiritedness of the Trump administration and the determination of the Republican Party to engage in mass deportations. And if they believe that after a bruising, painful, and occasionally exhilarating year full of fighting against long odds on issue after issue, the party's foot soldiers are going to be happy with these kinds of half-measures, they truly don't deserve to win.

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