As shutdown fever grips Washington, D.C., across the American political landscape, an epic blamestorm is in full swing. The Republicans are blaming the Democrats. The Democrats are blaming the Republicans.
Sotto voce, many Republicans, particularly in the Senate, are blaming the president, and his co-president Stephen Miller. Miller’s role in placing a Semtex charge under the tenuous DACA deal at the heart of this budget frenzy is a sign of his overwhelming power in this White House. Miller’s racial obsessions with immigrants are playing out in a game of political chicken in which five trains are racing toward one track in the switchyard of American politics.
America finds itself watching a familiar drama with an unknown element. In the past 20 years, shutdown fights over spending resolutions and debt limits resulted from Republicans trying to use their status in the minority to leverage a political impact. This time it’s different.
The early polls have spoken, and in a Washington dominated by one political party and its black-hole singularity of an attention-seeking president, guess who’s getting the blame from the American people? Yeah. The orange guy, and his minions.
This shutdown comes with unified Republican control of Washington and significant political clout handed to President Trump by his obeisant fellow Republicans.
When the “if Trump won’t sign it, we won’t send it” rule became the new political baseline for the GOP, they put significant power and blame into Trump’s wee little raccoon hands. In those silly old days when conservatives believed in the Constitution, it was the president and a co-equal branch of government who would make this kind of deal. Now it’s Lord Donald the Magnificent and his courtiers, all bowing and scraping to appease the royal appetite for subservience and praise.
Paul Ryan comes closest to escaping this mess with the fig leaf of cover, but it’s thin comfort. With the Freedom Caucus on his right flank and the soon-to-lose-their-seats caucus in the center, Ryan managed the swift passage of a bill that could have given Americans a sign of competence and focus in Washington. Ryan was thinking of the 70 or so vulnerable incumbents facing what increasingly looks like a blue Democratic wave.
Ryan wanted a bill, he wanted an out, and he wanted it done yesterday. For Ryan, who has members in districts that don’t look like the places Mark Meadows or Jim Jordan or Matt Gaetz represent, the standoff is poison. Ryan has to reassure nervous members of his party caucus that they won’t take the blame for a shutdown when most of them noticed their phones ringing in a white-hot frenzy since word of the lights going out in the federal government hit.
That won’t stop the Freedom Caucus, Fox News, and the immigration-uber-alles types making the pain for moderate Republicans even sharper. They’re flexing and chest-bumping one another in an attempt to out-Trump the Trumpiest Trumper, pushing for the Breitbart fantasy version of governance; shut ’er down except for the deportation trains and the Wall contractors.
Ryan managed to slam through a bill with CHIP funding and a DACA deal that looked acceptable to the president and the Senate. In the eyes of voters, it likely won’t be enough to stop the damage these fights inevitably cause.
As for the political fallout, Mitch McConnell's terrain looks far better than Speaker Ryan’s, but the ball is now firmly in the Senate’s court. Chuck Schumer is a wily opponent playing a minority hand in a shutdown fight with far more deftness and skill than the hapless Ted Cruz efforts during the Reid era.
Trump being Trump has become the Lucy of all political policies in D.C. He puts the football down on the tee, and members of Congress run toward it in good faith hoping to make an easy kick through the uprights. In this as in so many other legislative fights, Trump’s indiscipline, impulsivity, and lack of interest in the details comes screaming out. For anything more complex than the pictograms and cartoons in his daily PDB intel brief or simple one-syllable words that appear in the lower third on the Fox & Friends screen each morning, Trump is in way, way over his head. Trump’s focus in this shutdown fight isn’t the art of the deal. It’s short-attention-span theater.
This Potus is also now a captive of the monster Steve Bannon and President Miller created for him. Trump recognizes that his hard base is intolerant of any compromise on immigration policy that shows the slightest whit of humanity, decency, or political courage. Leading Senate Republicans and Democrats all blame Miller for personally blowing up a DACA deal. In Trump’s all-about-dat-base world, though, purity on this issue is everything.
It’s a foolish short- and long-term political choice, but the Suicide Party is making a lot of those lately. A bipartisan deal on CHIP and DACA would have let Republicans in Congress breathe a small sigh of relief. In a time of Charlottesville, shitholes, and the rest of the racial arson common in this administration, such a deal might perhaps open up just a tiny lane where members could go back to their districts and say they weren't on board the Breitbartian campaign of mass deportations.
President Miller is in some ways more pernicious then Bannon. Bannon’s constant auto-fellation, absurd desire to play the great man of history and frustration with the boring realities of governance and policy, in the end, helped sink him as a White House power player. Stephen Miller sees racial animus disguised as an immigration fight as the glue holding together the alt-right, the social conservatives, and the blue-collar Rust Belt they-took-our-jobs Trump true believers.
Miller is the classic rat inside the walls of government, a sneaky little crapweasel who plays the D.C. game to its hilt, pursuing his agendas instead of those that would be good for either his principal or for the country. I can only imagine what Miller was like when he was at Duke with pudgy race-baiter and Nazi fanboy Richard Spencer. Can’t you see them in some dorm room bull session, smoking weed and working through their plans to depopulate the Rodina of anyone darker than a latte? That, and Spencer trying to find a girl to throw Miller some mercy sex so he could get the dead-eyed creeper out of his dorm room.
One of the significant fallacies of Washington is that voters know or care about what it takes to pass legislation. I’ve been in any number of focus groups trying to parse through ways to get voters to understand things like cloture, the 60-vote requirement, and the filibuster.
Voters don’t care about the details. They can’t be made to care. They see dysfunction and chaos and blame the people they know. Now, work with me here, but who is the most famous person in the universe, and which party does he command like an army of dogs?
Blaming Schumer may be correct from a parliamentary procedure perspective, but Americans know and care as much about parliamentary procedure in Congress as they do about the endangered Australian ditch skink.
The Republican narrative takes three or four steps to explain. Any issue on which you have to draw out a flowchart and educate voters on the whys and wherefores of DC hits the most fundamental rule of political communications: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.
The press coverage voters see in the coming days if the shutdown drama continues won’t focus just on the he-said-she-said Washington politics, but will instead highlight the pain a shutdown causes in communities around the country. It will become a locked-down perception that the party in power exercised that power and shut down the government.
As a weathered political hand, I’d like to propose a simple test how one can judge how an issue is playing out in the country; you can tell who’s winning or losing a fight over an issue with the Town Hall Meetings rule. The people winning will be front and center with the public and will face their constituents. The people on the wrong side of the fight will stay in the tall grass.
If this goes on, that grass will look rather comfortable for more than a few Republican members of the Senate and House if this drags on.