Now What?

Maybe presiding over a government shutdown on the first anniversary of his administration is too perfect a metaphor for the most incompetent president in American history. Perhaps it was inevitable that a president whose business resume is filled with wreckage would be at the center of negotiations that would lead to such a fundamental and glaring failure. But I have long contended that the Trump presidency is a symptom of larger political dynamics. The government began closing its doors at midnight because of the same mix of political toxicity that has defined our politics for the past decade.

The government was shut down because of a disagreement over DACA, the Obama-era policy protecting DREAMERs, undocumented children brought to the United States by their parents, from deportation. Trump rescinded the policy last fall without any guidance on what would happen next, then tossed it to congress to fix the mess he created without any instructions on how to do it. For a brief moment, a bipartisan resolution looked possible, with Trump indicating his openness to supporting an arrangement that would have offered a path to citizenship for DREAMERs as part of a broader budget agreement that included funding for his border wall. That was before hardliners in congress and his administration appealed to his native anti-immigrant sentiment and got him to back down. When the agreement fell apart, Senate Democrats refused to go along with a stopgap measure funding the government for a few weeks, making it inevitable that the resolution would fail to overcome a filibuster. Since then, both sides have been trying to pin blame for the shutdown on the other.

The obstacle here is the hardline sentiment against any policy that normalizes the situation of undocumented immigrants, a sentiment that lies at the heart of Trumpism. Radicals are interested in purity, not compromise, and without the support of their radical faction the Republican Party lacks a functional congressional majority. This is why we have been treated to years of congressional budgeting-through-hostagetaking, and—in the absence of presidential leadership—it is why the government shut down last night.

This problem is baked into the structure of congress, making a resolution to the shutdown crisis difficult to foresee. On previous budgetary matters, leadership has been able to find temporary half-measures that kept things from falling apart, and perhaps they will again, but the politics this time is more complicated because the continuing resolution to keep the government operating for a few weeks was the half-measure compromise that in the past would have been the way forward. Instead, battle lines have been drawn. Democrats are effectively saying no to legislative hostages and are now publicly committed to addressing the plight of DREAMERs. Republicans risk a revolt by their radicals if they are viewed as folding to Democrats on an issue as central to their base as immigration. Only two things can intervene to end the standoff. One is the political heat produced by anger to a protracted shutdown, which polling and history suggest will be felt disproportionately by Republicans. The other is an election that can change majority control of congress, but that won’t happen until November.