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Maybe Democrats Learned a Lesson About Shutdowns

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At noon on Monday, after two days of government shutdown, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer got to his feet and explained that the “Trump shutdown” was coming to an end. There was a slightly wistful quality to the words as he said them; one got the feeling that Democrats had expected “Trump shutdown” to play with the public slightly better than it did.

It’s not hard to see where they got that idea. Republicans decisively lost the showdown in 2011, when they resisted raising the government’s debt ceiling, and the government shutdown in 2013, when they tried to defund Obamacare. Both times, the public blamed them for obstructionism. Of course, the lesson that one could have taken from this is that, as Commentary’s Noah Rothman put it, “Shutdowns don’t work. Ever.” But Democrats could be forgiven for having taken a quite different lesson: that given the media’s friendliness to Democratic priorities, any shutdown would be blamed on Republicans.

Every government shutdown, after all, involves two sides, either of which could theoretically stop it by agreeing to the other’s demands. But as it turned out a few years back, virtually 100% of the blame fell on “Republican obstructionism.”

(Related: Government Shutdown Talks Stall as Trump Balks on ACA Subsidy)

Given that Republicans now control all three branches of the government — given that they spent the last eight years gathering a reputation for intransigence — given that the media was apt to be much more sympathetic to an immigration bill than it was to the cause of repealing Obamacare — given that Republicans had taken the brunt of the blame not just for the shutdown in 2013, but for earlier ones in 1995 and 1996 … no, it wasn’t entirely crazy to think that Democrats might be able to achieve a double political coup: securing action on the DACA recipients and making Republicans pay the political price for Democratic hardball negotiating tactics.

But that wasn’t how it worked out. Despite their attempt to frame this as the “Trump shutdown,” Democrats didn’t win the first news cycle. Nor did things get better on Sunday.

Republicans took the blame for shutdowns when Democrats controlled the White House, because the public feels that the president ought to have considerable leeway in setting an agenda. (You can protest that this is not really how American government is set up, and you’d be right.)

The left has made much of the fact that polls show popular support for some sort of accommodation for people who are in the U.S. illegally if they came here as children. But they forget that the Affordable Care Act was also unpopular; the only reason the law wasn’t repealed before it took effect was that Democrats held just enough offices to block any Republican attempts to do so.

U.S. Capitol (Photo: Thinkstock)

(Photo: Thinkstock)

And in politics, popularity is not the only thing that matters. Intensity also matters, which is to say, “How much do voters actually care about this issue?” The number of Americans willing to say nice things about some proposal is inevitably smaller than the number of people who can be actually swayed by this issue to change their votes come November.

In the case of DACA, that number is probably pretty small indeed; outside of a hard core in each party’s base, I doubt many Americans have very strong opinions on the matter, much less opinions strong enough to override issues they care about more. And shutting down the government over immigration effectively asks people to decide “What matters more to you: young immigrants who were brought here through no fault of their own, or your Social Security check?”

Human nature being what it is, no party should be surprised when shutdowns backfire. The question is whether Democrats and Republicans have both learned a lesson from the events of this weekend, or whether we are looking at more shutdowns in the future.

Republicans, after all, returned to shutdown tactics in 2013, even though they had earlier failed, which tells us that legislators don’t always take the lessons of history to heart. When you care about an issue very much, it is extremely difficult to admit that there may be no political route to what you want.

Also, the shutdown this weekend represented a further escalation of the nasty game of tit-for-tat that has been eroding both political norms and legislative effectiveness over the last 30 years. One party breaks some norm, and then when Congress changes hands, the other party takes it further, until pretty soon, the norm disappears, and we are in a new, angrier state of “normal.” Each party comes out of these episodes with a lengthening list of the prior violations by the other side, and a growing thirst for vengeance.

Until this weekend, Democrats could say that shutdowns were a peculiar form of Republican insanity. Now it appears that they are bipartisan, which is halfway to being normalized. Even more concerning than the normalization is what it suggests about our politics: Both parties have strong incentives to adopt extremist positions and obstructionist tactics, rather than try to find some middle ground.

On the other hand, both parties have now conclusively demonstrated that shutting down the government is not a way to get what they want.

And to Chuck Schumer’s credit, he seems to have realized this fairly quickly. He didn’t drag it out, as the previous shutdowns dragged out; he tried the tactic, realized it wasn’t working, and pulled back before anyone outside of Washington really had time to notice.

Which leaves just a little hope that this episode may be less a sign of spreading disease than a sort of vaccination, a weakened dose that staves off a more serious sickness.

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