Never in our country’s 243 year history have parts of the United States government been shut down for such an extended period of time. Sure, federal agencies have closed for business before—on 21 separate occasions as a matter of fact. These kinds of things happen. Nobody likes to see the government run out of money, but cash crunches are typically sorted out within a few days after lawmakers pass a compromise funding bill to turn the lights back on.
This unfortunately is not what’s happened during the current crisis. The government remains shuttered because President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have trapped themselves in a real-time tragicomedy where three supposed adults eschew good-enoughism and latch instead onto the populism of their respective bases. Every morning for 30 straight days begins a new episode of an absurd and increasingly depressing show, where the leaders who are supposed to run the nation’s affairs are instead posturing in front of the cameras like a bunch of kindergartners in suits.
A month into the shutdown, Americans are more than aware of why nearly one million federal employees are working without pay and why others are furloughed at home wondering how they are going to make their next mortgage payments. After two years of demanding, but eventually relenting, on money for his wall along the southern border, President Trump is no longer willing to play the waiting game. Trump wants his border wall, and he wants it now. Any funding bill without the full $5.7 billion he is demanding will be sent right back where it came from.
The problem with Trump’s plan is that, after getting bamboozled in the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans have less power than they used to. Pelosi, the coastal elite the GOP loves to hate, is now holding the speaker’s gavel for the second time, and she has demonstrated no hesitation in using the national media to take the fight right to the president. Say what you will about Pelosi, but she knows how to wield political power and crack the whip. While a few dozen Democratic lawmakers might like to see someone other than her leading them, they’ve shown that they’re more than happy to stay in lockstep with their leader for this particular battle. If there is any issue congressional Democrats can rally around, it’s making Trump’s life miserable.
If this were an ordinary shutdown, the party leaders would spend a few days in public blaming one another for the crisis before negotiating in private. Sometimes the bashing and negotiating even happen simultaneously. After both sides make their points, cooler heads generally prevail. Washington might be in chaos for several days, but posturing politics is eventually replaced by a commonsense pragmatism.
This is precisely what’s missing during this latest episode of Shutdown America. There isn’t one ounce of pragmatism on either side of the aisle. There may be some individual initiatives from a few senators or an informal “gang” of senators shuttling between offices, but the leadership in both parties are either not interested in what the others have to say or don’t believe their efforts are worthy of consideration. Trump, Pelosi, and Schumer are all trafficking in pure politics, Trump by putting forth proposals that the other side will never accept, and Democrats by refusing to even entertain a proposal until Trump reopens the government. The ever-shrinking middle on Capitol Hill is getting squeezed out. The shutdown has become less about the border wall, border security, and immigration policy, and more about political combat for combat’s sake. Horrified of getting on the wrong side of the partisans, the country’s top politicians are engaged in a staredown of limitless duration. And nobody is willing to blink first.
Trump, Pelosi, and Schumer can read the polls. They see their parties drifting further from the center. The president meets with his political advisors and knows that Republicans are solidly behind him (82 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters support a wall on the southern border, according to a recent Pew poll). So why change? Pelosi and Schumer, too, are given numbers every morning that validate their approach (in the same poll, only 6 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaners want a wall). Why move on anything, they ask, if their constituents are in their corner?
In asking this question, party leaders are trafficking in partisanship over leadership. Anybody can be a partisan—there is nothing difficult about saying “no” to the other side—but not everybody can be a leader who shoves poll numbers aside and does what’s in the best interests of the country.
The exact contours of a deal will take painful negotiating sessions in windowless rooms at the White House and in the speaker’s office. There will be yelling, grandstanding, and leaking. But at least there will also be some communication, an ingredient we are now missing.
In fairness to the president, last weekend, Trump did put forth an offer: a three-year deportation reprieve for Dreamers in exchange for wall money. Unsurprisingly, the Democrats immediately rejected it. Now it’s their turn to offer a counter-proposal. Now it’s time to negotiate.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.