Politics & Policy

A Shutdown to Nowhere

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The hope of achieving major policy goals via a government shutdown usually involves a huge dollop of wishful thinking. This time is no different.

President Trump wants to come out the other end of this (very) partial shutdown with substantially more funding for a border wall, but everything is set up for a disappointment.

The first rule for winning a government-shutdown battle is not to take responsibility for the shutdown, which Trump did in his Oval Office confrontation with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer a week or so ago. Having gone on the record about how proud he’d be to shut down the government over border security, his subsequent attempts to blame the Democrats have gotten no traction (even if the Democrats are, indeed, wholly recalcitrant on the wall).

Party unity is necessary to weathering a shutdown fight and the congressional GOP leadership is unenthused, at best, over Trump’s tactics over the last few days.

Finally, Democrats know that with every day that passes, they get a little closer to having more power when Nancy Pelosi takes the speaker’s gavel on January 3, so they would have no incentive to budge even if they were feeling political pressure. (It also, by the way, makes no sense to end the Senate filibuster just when unwelcome legislation will begin coming over from the House.)

This is why the shutdown is likely a box canyon for the White House. We sympathize with the desire for more structure on the border — wall, fencing, whatever — but it has taken on an outsized symbolic significance for both sides.

Democrats oppose it as if a wall designed to keep illegal immigrants and drug traffickers out would transform us into the moral equivalent of East Germany, which tried to wall its impoverished and repressed people in.

For their part, Trump supporters often speak of the wall as if it is the alpha and omega of immigration enforcement. Actually, regarding the migrant crisis, changing the rules around how we handle family units from Central America and asylum-seekers would be more important. In general, an E-Verify system to get employers to confirm the legal status of their employees would be the single most effective enforcement measure, by turning off the jobs magnet.

All that said, the White House could have easily secured more funding if it had made it a concerted aim from the beginning. Instead, its initial budget request was for $1.6 billion, which it was on track to get before the president decided that $5 billion was the only acceptable number.

His seat-of-the-pants decision-making is another factor making a good outcome unlikely. He hopes, despite all of this, to wait out the Democrats until they buckle. We wish him luck, but the chances of success would be much greater if wishful thinking were a strategy.


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