Washington is staring into the abyss of its third shutdown in two years. Say what you want about the political utility of a shutdown (and, believe me, the talking heads will spare no words), but one significant advantage they provide is to clarify the field of battle.
Thanks to the ongoing shutdown theater, two things are now obvious.
First, Republican leadership in Congress had no intention of even trying to fund Trump’s wall, much less actually doing it, despite repeatedly promising to do so.
And second, Trump is being exactly who he said he was, and doing exactly what he said he’d do, and all of greater Washington is still shocked—shocked!—by it.
To the first point, departing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have been leading Trump down the primrose path on the wall since January 2017. Days after the president was sworn in, Ryan and McConnell held a joint press conference pledging that they would use their unified government to, among other things, repeal Obamacare, pass tax reform, pass an infrastructure bill, and give the president $12 to $15 billion for the wall.
None of that, save tax reform (these are still Republicans, after all, so corporate priorities!) got done. Excuses were made. $1.6 billion for border security was tossed into the March omnibus, with prohibitions on any of it being used to build Trump’s wall prototypes. When Trump got restless before the midterms, Ryan and McConnell held him off by promising “a big fight”on the wall in the lame duck.
None emerged, so here we are.
Instead of making good on his promise to “try really hard” (McConnell’s words) the leader’s first move was to cut a deal with Senate Democrats on a bill without wall funding, and pass it. When Ryan tried to do the same, rank and file House Republicans revolted—and with good reason.
House members, who by design are far closer to the whims and will of the voters than their Senate brethren, seemed to understand what most mainstream Washington Republicans do not: you cannot keep failing to deliver again and again and again and expect the voters to keep trusting you. At some point, the constant failures become too much, particularly on an issue where 65 percent of Republicans don’t want a compromise.
On this, the fight over funding for the wall has become a proxy battle between establishment Republicans who have no intention of helping the president, and the more conservative members who want to deliver on their campaign promises.
Establishment Washington has believed for years that it can run on platform issues like repealing Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, and reforming the immigration system, but then provide dozens of excuses as to why these objectives can’t be met.
First, Republicans said, they needed the House. Then the Senate. Then the White House. But of course, once all of those were delivered, it still wasn’t enough. Now they need 60 votes in the Senate or nothing can happen! They believe that voters are, in fact, dumb enough to keep buying what they’re selling.
Gone unmentioned, of course, is the fact that establishment priorities somehow never face that “need 60 votes or it ain’t happenin’” hurdle.
The GOP still managed to pass tax reform last year without 60 votes, and in the face of significant opposition from Democrats. McConnell spent months pushing the farm bill over the finish line to get a special carve out for industrial hemp in Kentucky—again, without 60 Republican votes. The giant increases in defense spending, opposed by Democrats? They pass every time, always without 60 Republican votes.
Moreover, there are strategies available to McConnell to get around Democrat obstruction. He simply chooses not to use them. McConnell made the baffling decision this year not to use a reconciliation vehicle, which passes the Senate at 51 votes (the same vehicle used to pass tax reform in 2017, and which Democrats used to pass part of Obamacare in 2010). This is akin to failing to fire a silver bullet.
He also refuses to enforce the rules of the Senate against Democrats, which would make obstruction physically tiring and grueling to maintain. McConnell could be forcing Democrats to speak during the floor time they demand, instead of simply conceding it. When confronted with that option, anonymous Republican leadership aides object to the strategy because, to paraphrase, “It’s hard. We might have to work nights.”
But to the second point, President Trump exists outside of establishment Washington. He doesn’t play by the same rules, and has never claimed to. Yet somehow, this very obvious fact continues to befuddle The Swamp, which, after two straight years of asking, is still surprised that Trump wants border wall funding and is unhappy that he doesn’t have it.
The same is true when it comes to Trump’s recent decision to accept the resignation of General James Mattis. Mattis’s resignation letter made clear he is departing due to substantive foreign policy differences with the president, particularly over Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Mattis’ departure has led to yet-unseen levels of hysteria from Washington’s establishment.
But, again, this is really not that unheard of. For one thing, defense secretaries leave fairly regularly; Mattis lasted longer under President Trump than former secretaries Panetta, Hagel, and Carter did under President Obama.
But second, what did people expect? Trump ran on a platform of reducing America adventurism in endless wars. He repeatedly asked Mattis to get troops out of Syria. Mattis resisted. He repeatedly asked for a solution to drawing down the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Again, Mattis gave him no options. Instead, Mattis focused his energies on issues like approving transgender soldiers in the military—not quite high on the MAGA agenda.
We can debate the merits of pulling out of Syria (and the heads exploding in the foreign policy establishment suggest we will), but there’s no denying that Mattis is opposed to the president’s foreign policy, and that, as Mattis’s resignation letter suggested, the president “has a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned” with his own.
Again, Trump is kicking the conventional finger wagging “we know best” wisdom of the Washington establishment down the corridor. Is that really such a bad thing? At the very least, maybe it will force Congress actually to debate how and where our troops are deployed overseas, instead of shrugging and refusing to confront itt.
It’s unclear how this shutdown will end. Contrary to the talking heads, shutdowns don’t always end poorly for Republicans. They poll terribly, but rarely does that ever translate to action at the ballot box.
Whether Trump gets his wall funding or not, this shutdown will have the effect of making it very clear who the president’s obstructionists are in both parties. And, to paraphrase the ancient strategist Sun Tzu, it’s always preferable to begin a battle first by clearly identifying your enemy.
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